The House With A Clock In Its Walls is the story of Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a young orphan who suddenly finds himself under the care of his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and his patron’s neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). What Lewis soon learns is that this pair of friends are a well-meaning warlock and a once-proficient witch, respectively. Furthermore, his new place of residence is a magical house has living furniture including an overstuffed armchair that acts like a dog, a stained-glass window that communicates via beautiful morphing imagery, and even a topiary of a lion that bounds about the front yard.
Lewis exhibits a keen knack for words and a sharp intellect. As such, he becomes enamored with the world of magic and enters under his uncle’s tutelage. While Lewis is proud of his quick study, he laments his lack of friends at his new school and sees magic as a way to impress a fellow classmate. Unfortunately, his plan backfires and Lewis accidentally puts in motion a terrible plot linked to the house’s ultimate secret—a mysterious, hidden clock, which ticks incessantly through the walls.
What works in The House With A Clock In Its Walls, is its ability to find a relatively small niche within the family fantasy adventure genre and fill it with magical charm. Produced under the Amblin banner, responsible for such classics as E.T. and Goonies, director Eli Roth (who up until has mostly been known for R-rated fare), takes many of his skills in mood setting and character development and adapts them well for this PG affair. The first two acts, in particular, are laced with joyous whimsy while young Lewis learns magic and more about the quirky and peculiar workings of the house with wide-eyed childlike wonder. Much of the humor, like a sleepy Lewis casually using magic to tidy up his room after waking, is simple and perhaps a little obvious, but it is all so enjoyable it’s hard not to grin and chuckle.
Contributing to the charm are Black, Blanchett, and Vaccaro, who exhibit instant familial chemistry and offer suitable counterbalances to one another. Black uses his comedic talent deftly, playing up the role of warm-hearted crazy reckless uncle to a tee. His wide smile and honesty make you instantly believe the rapport between him and Lewis. Blanchett is the more cautious—her character suffered a great loss which has diminished her powers, thus more protective and maternal. While the two neighbors get under each other’s skin every now again, as evidenced by a running gag of hilarious name-calling between Black and Blanchett, the sense that these two magicians love each other (platonically! as Lewis likes to clarify), and care for Lewis in their own ways is palpable.
While The House With A Clock In Its Walls has a great deal of warmth and levity, the third act, unfortunately, sees Roth losing track of his core audience with tonal shifts that nearly derail the film. The plot and action escalate to a point where the fun is almost completely diminished and replaced with sequences that are incredibly dark, creepy, and frightening. What confounds this further is that while the subject matter and scares become more mature, Roth attempts to offset these developments by making the humor more juvenile.
The House With a Clock In Its Walls almost creates a pitch-perfect family film clearly aimed at ones with kids aged to 8 to 12. Unfortunately, a lack of restraint near the end results in a messy landing to an otherwise entertaining ride.
Recommended if you enjoyed: Goosebumps, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children