The House With a Clock in Its Walls

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 21, 2018

'The House With a Clock in Its Walls'
'The House With a Clock in Its Walls'  

Cate Blanchett and Jack Black camp up the family-oriented fantasy "The House with a Clock in Its Walls." Based on the 1973 juvenile mystery novel of the same name, this first in a series of 12 books leads a property that certainly aspires to be the American "Harry Potter." Director Eli Roth's rudely humored, CGI filled adaptation of John Bellairs' original, an occult thriller, takes a lighter look at necromancy.

After his parents are killed in a car accident, ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) goes to the conventional town of New Zebedee to live with his unconventional Uncle Jonathan (Black) in his exceptionally unusual house. This is a place filled with creepy mechanical dolls, an armchair that scurries around like a puppy and a stained glass window that communicates with its human housemates.

Though the unusually precocious young boy can't decide whether his mother's estranged brother is simply a kimono-clad quirkster or a mysterious ax murderer, he's comforted by his uncle's next-door neighbor and bickering-buddy Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett).

Florence's violet suits, lilac frocks and lavender sweaters (fitted to perfection around her full-support foundation garments) make her as sharply dressed as she is smartly witted, but she has something more than an ability to make tasty cookies and look amazing. She is a high-powered witch, currently out of practice. And, as it so happens, Uncle Jonathan is a warlock, though a rather inept one.

Blanchett's rendition of this saucy sorceress keeps pace with Black's larger-than-life screen presence, while also managing to capture a full range of nuances under the surface. There is a life of hurt and regret under that fuchsia fashion, for she, like Lewis, has also lost her family.

It's the 1950s and suburban conformity reigns supreme, everyone want their slice of the pie, and they want it to cut directly from society's pie dish. In Lewis' elementary school this is no exception. But he's a weird kid with a capital "W," and his eccentric new family isn't helping him fit the mould. Fortunately, he's befriended by one of the most popular kids in his class, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic).

Ultimately, Lewis will have to make the choice to obey the rules of magic set down by his uncle, or hang-on to his new, and only, friend — by a foray into raising the dead.

There's plenty of spectacle in this film, fully animate topiary and fight sequences with demonic jack-o-lanterns, but all of this distracts from the truly creepy Victorian phantasmagoria that decorates Uncle Jonathan's mysterious house.

Though it's certain to please the little ones when they tire of trick-or-treating, this film doesn't capture the full aura of its predecessor. Larger themes of war, mortality, loss of loved ones, and a longing to reunite with the dead get lost in the slaphappy silliness of this feel good family film. Intellectually, it plays to the lowest common denominator and it is quick to gloss over the unhappy emotions, making it more of a showy diversion than a meditation on good and evil.