Arts movie review

‘You can’t vote for me if you have no arms’

Childhood vibes, magic, and cheap scares combine

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Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) examines his uncle's magic house.
Courtesy of Storyteller Distribution Co.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls
Directed by Eli Roth
Screenplay by Eric Kripke
Based on the novel by John Bellairs
Starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan
Rated PG
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From horror director Eli Roth comes The House With a Clock in Its Walls, an interesting departure from his usual lineup of films.

Newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) has moved to New Zebedee to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Lewis quickly realizes that things are not exactly as they seem. The house feels alive with its shifting mosaics and endless array of clocks, and every night, there’s a distinct ticking in the wall he can’t quite ignore. When Lewis has finally had enough of the unknown horrors, he attempts to escape for fear of his life — just to finally have his uncle reveal to him the nature of the house. It’s a magic house that used to belong to an old and powerful warlock, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Having known Isaac, Jonathan, a fellow warlock, took over the house for him and maintains it with help from his next door neighbor, a witch by the name of Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).

I found it hard to try to qualify my initial impressions with the film until Lewis goes to school for the first time in his new environment. It had hit me by then that the whimsical, childhood-driven feel of the movie reminded me of films I had watched in my childhood such as Halloweentown and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (yes, the one with Nicolas Cage in it) — not necessarily amazing, life-changing films, but they were fun to watch at the time and easy to consume as a young movie watcher.

So, what did I like? I liked the introduction to the world of magic in this film. It has that initial umph of amazement, but that first impression only lasts so long before everything feels like overdone parlor tricks. Compared to the contemporary likenesses of Newt Scamander and Doctor Strange, the world of Lewis Barnavelt admittedly feels old-fashioned and not as awe-inspiring.

Another thing I liked about the film is the dynamic between Uncle Jonathan and Miss Zimmerman and the resulting humor. The two are like a bickering old married couple despite never entertaining a romantic relationship before and during Lewis’s story. There are moments when they just quip back and forth in a way that could make any audience member giggle, but there are also moments that really draw you in, like when the two of them work together. It’s the times when the warlock and witch duo explore the world of magic in their own way that felt really compelling to me, but unfortunately it made the rest of the movie bland in comparison.

And that takes me to what I didn’t enjoy as much in The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Overall, the film relies pretty heavily on classic movie tropes to carry the plot of the film, from the cool, mean kid to the ignored, innocent love interest to the naive kid who should really know better. It contributes to the old school charm of the film, but again, this is not necessarily always a good thing. It also felt hard to follow Lewis’s character development and sympathize with him. At first, Lewis is smart and clever; and yet his intelligence is undermined by later actions that only frustrated me. I couldn’t imagine why Lewis couldn’t have used his apparent smarts to guide him through the story rather than let his emotions overtake him for the majority of the film. Yes, it is true that he is only just a child, but the impression of his character from the start of the film leaves much to be desired as the film progresses.

As it turns out, the motivation behind the movie’s primary antagonist also leaves much to be desired. Throughout the film, you’re led on to believe that his motives are mysterious and complex. When it comes to the actual reveal, I was underwhelmed by the absurdity of the claim and almost ready to check out by then.

Overall, The House With a Clock in Its Walls would probably be a fun watch for the kids, but mom and dad may be itching to leave by the end. I also now have a certain image of Jack Black in my head that I wish could be erased from my mind, so there’s that.