There’s a storied history of horror directors making their way into family entertainment. The most apparent contemporary examples include Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, two low-rent schlock masters who worked their way up the ranks via into the blockbuster scene — both to wonderful results, with the “Spider-Man” trilogy and “The Lord of the Rings” films, respectively. And since Eli Roth was indebted to the influences of his very well-established predecessors, Jackson and Raimi (perhaps even to a fault), it was only a matter of time before he followed in their footsteps and made his own family-friendly motion picture, one that was divorced from the shock and maybe even the cruelty of his early work. That day comes today with the arrival of his newest film, “The House With A Clock On Its Walls,” the newest film under Amblin Entertainment‘s very coveted banner, based on the YA source material of the same name by John Bellairs.
Set in 1955, with a nice attention to period detail, but little in the way of fun with regards to what they should do with it, “The House With A Clock On Its Walls” is centered around the precious (as per usual with child protagonist) Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a lonely 10-year-old boy who recently lost his adoring parents in a tragic car accident. Upon the death of his guardians, Lewis is left in the care of his distant uncle, Jonathan (a bearded, mischevious Jack Black), the brother of his late mother who didn’t appear in Lewis’ life, as he was even absent for the funeral of his sister, who carries more than a few secrets.
Furnished in a nicely spooky, grandly spacious residence not far from the rest of the town — even though, characteristically, it is as different from its neighboring house as the Addams family were from their respective locales — Owen doesn’t know what to make of his new surroundings, particularly when the house where he now presides typically come alive in regular spurts. And it doesn’t take long for young Owen to discover that his distant uncle is, in fact, a warlock, and he is willing to dispell his secrets for his eager-to-learn nephew, as he is partially hoping that learning the dark arts will help him earn friends at school.
Joined alongside the equally magical, by far superior, witch and next-door neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, seemingly having a ball), Owen begins to become a young warlock. Though they share a bit of a contentious relationship (and one that Owen rightfully puts out is “platonic”), Florence and Jonathan work together to help Owen become a young sorcerer. And though they will never replace his parents, particularly as Owen still has visions of his mother late into the night, the two magic beings begin to form a parental bond with the young child, particularly as the looming threat of their former ally-turned-enemy Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) begins to weigh heavily on the family dynamic!
The first in a series of twelve books featuring its young orphaned protagonist, “The House With A Clock On Its Walls” might appear to be a mix of the sensibilities found in “Goosebumps” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” but it has the leg up on both of them since the first novel was originally published in 1973. There’s no denying that the nostalgic ‘House With A Clock’ is also trying to recapture the same magic of Amblin Entertainment of previous decades, particularly ’80s cult classics like “Gremlins” and “The Goonies.” The filmmakers didn’t whip out the retro Universal Studios logo just for kicks! Roth is trying to both pay homage to children entertainment of the past while also potentially forging a new path for himself as an unlikely filmmaker behind a long-running string of family-appropriate films. Sadly, though, that success wavers.
Despite his best efforts to reign in his usual sensibilities to produce a film that can be enjoyed by all audiences, not merely a few people who enjoy the type of films that earned the distinction of being called “torture porn,” Roth can’t find that same magic. Either fittingly or ironically, “The House With A Clock On Its Walls” moves like clockwork, producing a film that’s more mechanical than fun. Despite having all the right ingredients, the final product doesn’t feel lighthearted and twistedly fun. It feels oddly perfunctory and designed-by-nature, producing a new franchise starter that doesn’t feel quite spontaneous enough.
But it is a credit to our two famous leads, Black and Blanchett, that ‘House with a Clock’ occasionally finds its rhythm. Playfully hammy and gleefully devious, particularly Black, our two adult leads seem to make the most of the movie’s creepy, undefined exterior, producing a pair of unlikely co-stars who relish in the prickly wit and warm charisma of the other actor. Were these two given the center stage, perhaps “The House With A Clock On Its Walls” might’ve been the delightfully debauched family film, one that isn’t afraid to introduce some casual or enthused younger viewers to the thrills and chills of introductory horror.
But instead, we’re often left with our good-natured but ultimately underwhelming young protagonist —who isn’t bad, necessarily, but he fails to escape of the well-pressed shadow of his older, more distinguished and more naturally present co-stars. He isn’t without a sense of bright-eyed sweetness, one that sometimes helps to absorb us into the wondrous world we’re inside. But where he should often be dazed, he’s dulled. And where he should be dazzled, he seems like he’s more-than-slightly lost.
Ultimately, it’s up to Roth to drive the magic home. While he is certainly up to the challenge, and often impressively toning down his adult instincts for this children-friendly picture, he doesn’t know how to garner the same majestic charm that came so readily from, say, the first “Harry Potter,” which was still able to be exceptionally bewitching. Like that Chris Columbus film, it’s the individual moments in this belabored effort that stand out more than the whole. But there’s simply not enough spark in even the more engaging segments to drive you, the audience, under its spell.
Nevertheless, “The House With A Clock On Its Walls” has its fair share of charms, but it doesn’t leave you spellbound. [C]