Many hopeful movies have dreamed of one day becoming a franchise, only to be foiled by putting their wrong foot forward. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is adapted from the first book in a series of twelve, so Universal Pictures stands to make a lot of money if this bet pays off. Or will it be another tick on their record?
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” follows Lewis Barnavelt, yet another young protagonist whose precocious personality annoys rather than charms. He wears flight goggles everywhere he goes and reads a dictionary for fun because it’s good to be different. Who would’ve thought a kids’ movie would finally have the courage to say that?
Anyway, Lewis’ parents recently died in a car crash, so he’s sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a requisite spooky house. Jonathan lives with the warm and mysterious Florence (Cate Blanchett), and despite the affection with which the two trade verbal barbs, they’re just friends—anything otherwise would be “kissy face”, as the film attests, and that would be gross.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is aimed far more squarely at children than its marketing efforts suggest. The unhealthy dose of juvenile humor isn’t the movie’s greatest weakness in that regard: where the target audience is young kids, there tend to be child actors, and the performers here aren’t going to be hailed as prodigies anytime soon. It feels cruel to criticize children for their acting ability, but the kids here don’t just fall short of youngest-ever Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis—they can’t summon the watchable amiability of Macaulay Culkin. When lead actor Owen Vaccaro first cries about his parents’ death on-screen, it’s unintentionally funny instead of affecting.
Things pick up for Lewis when he finds out that his uncle’s a warlock—and, naturally, that Florence is a witch. Their haunted house’s previous tenant was evil Isaac Izard the warlock (so close, just let the rhyme happen), who died there after trying to conjure a dark spell. In his last moments, he whispered to Jonathan that he had hidden a clock in the house’s walls, and Jonathan has been trying to find it ever since. He believes that the clock is a source of great evil—and the ticking rather annoys him.
Lewis accepts all of this information like it’s just another definition in his dictionary. The characters of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” are written paper thin: they change only with the whims of the plot, overcoming trauma or learning to accept themselves in sudden, unearned bursts exactly when they need to. The narrative has an equally flimsy relationship with logic. Jonathan has spent a year looking for the clock, but doesn’t look in the most obvious spot; Lewis wants to prove to a classmate that magic is real, but resorts to showing him books about magic rather than the sentient pet armchair; a third act twist renders much of the second act nonsensical. The screenplay is full of holes.
Though the message is good, we don’t have to accept lazy writing in kids’ movies. Recent shining examples like “Paddington 2” and “Zootopia” have proved that. At least “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” doesn’t falter when it comes to (adult) performances and tone. Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, and the chameleonic Kyle MacLachlan are all a ton of fun to watch here, and they understand the Tim Burton-esque tone that director Eli Roth was aiming for. Roth, making a huge departure from the slasher genre, mostly succeeds in that endeavor. It’s always nice to see a kids’ movie with an eye for scary imagery.
But if you’re looking to train your kids’ eyes on something for a couple of hours, handing them an iPad will be faster and cheaper than a trip to the theater. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” isn’t worth your time.