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Family-friendly ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ is scary but not scarringly so

JACK BLACK
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Director Eli Roth draws on his horror movie roots with this children's movie

Wait, what? Has Eli Roth, the director credited with kickstarting “torture porn” with works like Cabin Fever and Hostel, actually gone and made a children’s movie? Yes, he has, and it makes sense in a way. Having been born in 1972, Roth is the perfect age to have grown up watching such off-kilter kiddie flicks as The NeverEnding Story, Return to Oz, and The Monster Squad. With such films filling his formative years, it’s really no surprise that Roth would eventually take a stab (so to speak) at making his own contribution to the genre, and now he’s done so with an adaptation of John Bellairs’ popular novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls.

For those unfamiliar with the book, The House with a Clock in Its Walls tells the story of recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) who comes to live in a decidedly spooky house with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). The rumor around town is that Jonathan is an axe murderer, but as it turns out he’s just a plain old witch, as is his equally weird neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blachett).

Once that truth is revealed, Jonathan reluctantly agrees to take young Lewis on as a warlock in training. Unfortunately, the deceased former owner of the house, evil wizard Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), has also developed an interest in the lad. Specifically, the undead villain hopes to trick the boy into securing the means necessary to bring about the end of all human life on the planet. As you might guess from the movie’s title, this plan involves a doomsday clock secreted away within the walls of Jonathan’s abode.

It’s a serviceable enough plot for a serviceable enough movie. The film is aimed squarely at pleasing kids and it doesn’t strive too hard to accomplish anything else. Neither does the cast. As the sarcastic, but jocular Jonathan, Jack Black mostly mugs and grimaces his way through his role. That’s no big deal, though, since that’s pretty much what you hire Jack Black for to begin with. Multiple Oscar winner Cate Blanchett seems to be having fun playing a practically perfect Poppin-esque witch with a penchant for all things purple, but there’ll be no awards for her this time around.

As for director Eli Roth, he actually turns in better work than he’s done in a while. The film has a nice gothic look to it, though a lot of the credit for that must go to the set designers, who in turn were undoubtably inspired by Edward Gorey’s original illustrations for the book. And while there are (thankfully) no gory scenes of bodily carnage, Roth does draw on his horror movie roots to provide a few memorable images such a room full of ultra-creepy automatons. They’re just scary enough to get a rise out of the little ones, but not enough so to scar them for life. Roth is probably saving those kinds of images for his next adult-oriented undertaking.

Now, as any use of magic in children’s movies raises concern for some parents, it is noted that the film follows the Harry Potter ruleset in that some spells are considered benign while others are absolutely off limits. Basically, levitating things is okay, but attempting to raise the dead could cost you your soul. Just to make sure you know that some things are to be avoided, the film even namedrops Azazel as the source of some of the bad magic. (If you don’t recognize that name, a good Catholic or Jewish encyclopedia can help you out.)

All in all, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a pleasant enough diversion. Those who enjoyed the Goosebumps movie (which also happened to star Black) will find similar family fare here. For others, well, the ubiquitous Disney/Pixar holiday offerings aren’t too far off.

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