When recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) goes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), he never expects to become the protege of a warlock and his next door neighbor witch Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) in "The House with a Clock in its Walls."
If you made a bet that torture porn director Eli Roth ("Hostel") might be a good choice to direct a kid's movie, you won! This surprisingly charming mix of Harry Potter, "A Christmas Story" and "Hugo" has enough creepiness for the kids while adults can enjoy the Addams Family by way of Tim Burton production design and Blanchett's amusing eccentricity.
When he's met on the bus by his Uncle Jonathan, Lewis is taken aback by the man's kimono, ironic given his ever present Captain Midnight goggles. In other words, Lewis fits right in well before he realizes it. The first thing he notices in Jonathan's sprawling home behind high, iron gates is a preponderance of clocks, all ticking away at different times, but the house's contents grow stranger and stranger the more he looks and his uncle's secretiveness is unsettling. Finding his uncle conferring with Zimmerman behind a partially closed door on his first morning, Lewis is shoved out of the house and left to find his way to his new school where he's promptly informed the house is haunted, the scene of an axe murder. That night Lewis is woken by loud sounds only to find his uncle smashing into a wall with an axe! But Jonathan quickly calms the terrified boy, telling him about his quest to find the mysterious clock within its walls.
The movie's least interesting aspect is this titular mystery, although its fun to see Kyle MacLachlan as the evil wizard Isaac Izard behind it. Adapting John Bellairs' novel (the first in a series of ten), Eric Kripke finds its heart in grief, loss and the love of an unconventional family while Roth neatly balances humor, horror and earned sentiment. The house on High Street is a marvel, a giant cabinet of curiosities stuffed with an armchair that acts like a dog, automatons, animated stained glass, headless teddies, skulls and skeletons, its exterior graced with malevolent jack o'lanterns and a winged topiary lion with bad digestion. The tree lined streets of Zebedee practically revel in 1950's small town nostalgia.
Vaccaro is a sympathetic lead as the kid trying to make friends and prove himself as an aspiring warlock. We can see his confidence grow as he goes from being the kid nobody picks at gym to the one capable of amazing feats from its stands. Blanchett, beautifully clad in distinctive shades of purple, her fashionably grey hair swept up in a stylish French twist, is both hilarious and moving, her tragically thwarted maternity finding a new home with Lewis. She enjoys affectionately insulting banter with Black, a sort of chaste romance she denies in horror with grade school terminology. Black does his usual schtick which, while not at all compelling in and of itself, fits right in with Roth's general scheme (watch for a Roth cameo in a Potteresque framed moving picture). Also good are Sunny Suljic as Lewis's fair weather friend Tarby and Vanessa Anne Williams as his potential love interest Rose Rita. "Knock Knock's" Lorenza Izzo plays Lewis's mother in his dreams and Coleen Camp is Jonathan's appalled neighbor Mrs. Hanchett, but neither are who they seem.
"The House with a Clock in its Walls" features all manner of magic from raising the dead to pumpkins spewing their guts and the serious horrors of selling one's soul to Azazel and wiping out humanity, but have no fear, Roth's made it all fun.
Robin did not see this film.
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