The fantasy genre has become especially dark in recent years, particularly due to the influence of juggernaut franchises like Game of Thrones that have brought the genre to a new audience of mainstream adults. This means that more light-hearted fantasy that doesn’t involve superheroes must often be found in both the family movie genre, or retro throwbacks that are adapted from relatively aged works. The House with a Clock in its Walls just so happens to be both.
Inspired by the 1973 childrens’ novel of the same name, The House with a Clock in its Walls definitely echoes shades of the lighter first few years of Harry Potter, despite the source novel preceding J.K. Rowling’s timeless wizarding saga by over two decades. The movie adaptation that came along four and a half decades after the book’s initial publication also undeniably seems to serve as Universal attempting to capitalize on Jack Black’s newfound niche in kid-friendly comedic fantasy stories, which he started carving out with Sony Pictures after the release of 2015’s Goosebumps movie,and followed that up with last year’s incredibly successful Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
It’s thus a bit tough to deny the feeling that The House with a Clock in its Walls feels a little reverse-engineered and focus-tested, and this may explain why it ended up plunked in the dismal September movie schedule this year. Despite that however, the movie really isn’t bad, even if it also doesn’t quite realize the potential of its bigger ideas and well-meaning efforts to expand upon its source material. In an era when many fantasy stories have become rather dark and angsty though, The House with a Clock in its Walls does succeed at boasting no shortage of charm and whimsy, and that makes it a good choice to tide moviegoers over as they wait for the meatier fantasy blockbusters to come with the fast-approaching Holiday season.
The House with a Clock in its Walls primarily stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, as two magic-wielding grown-up leads, Jonathan and Florence, respectively, who take in the freshly-orphaned nephew of Jonathan, that being Lewis, played by child actor, Owen Vaccaro. Much of the movie unfolds from Lewis’ perspective, as with the source novel, though it’s clear that Black and Blanchett are the main draws here, even as Vaccaro does a commendable job of trying to make an otherwise cliched oddball genius child lead stand out. There are a few interesting ideas explored with Lewis’ character, particularly in his unlikely friendship with popular kid, Tarby, played by The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Sunny Suljic, but much like the rest of the story, Lewis’ character doesn’t hit many notes that so many other eccentric ‘gifted child’ protagonists haven’t hit before.
Fortunately, it’s the surprisingly potent rapport between Black and Blanchett that really holds the movie’s personality together, two actors that work like peanut butter and chocolate. You’d never imagine that such polar opposite personalities like Black and Blanchett would work so well as adult leads in a kids’ movie, but since both effectively embrace the lovable strangeness behind the material, they both form an infectiously charming odd couple act that makes them both a delight to watch, particularly when they can trade barbed, over-the-top insults. There’s even surprising depth to both of their personalities, who aren’t just magical weirdos, but still manage to feel like real people with surprisingly relatable pain and insecurities, even when they bumble around a fantastical house that is very proudly removed from sensible reality.
It almost feels accidental, considering so many parts of the stories and personalities in The House with a Clock in its Walls that ultimately play it a little too safe at times, but there is a successful marriage between child-friendly fantasy and more robust, real-world character drama, some of which even manages to make pretty bold use of the period 1955 setting. The movie even makes a pretty striking change in the portrayal of its lead villains, played by Kyle Maclachlan and Renee Elise Goldsberry, which at least attempt to have motivations that go beyond a cardboard desire to destroy the world. That attempt isn’t wholly successful, unfortunately, since the movie only manages to go so deep into the painful places it probes, likely for fear of upsetting the younger audience it’s primarily aimed at. Still, even if it sometimes feels a little disturbed by studio interference, The House with a Clock in its Walls manages to have enough memorable heart behind the characters to make it hold viewers’ attention, at least for the reasonable 105-minute runtime.
The House with a Clock in its Walls largely keeps the premise of the book intact, along with much of its early progression. The title comes from child protagonist, Lewis being adopted by his uncle, Jonathan, along with his neighbour and seeming frenemy, Florence, with Jonathan happening to live in a house that ticks loudly at night. Jonathan spends his nights hunting for the elusive clock that is hidden somewhere in the house’s walls, which was placed by one of the villains, Isaac Izard, as a clock counting down to the end of the world. It’s through learning about the clock that Lewis also comes to learn that Jonathan and Florence are magic users, and eventually convinces Jonathan to train him in the art of magic.
If you think you can predict the main story beats of what happens from here, then you’re probably correct for the most part. Like I said, for all of its bolder and more memorable character material that it attempts to build, The House with a Clock in its Walls doesn’t ultimately stray too far from the child-friendly fantasy playbook in terms of its core story foundation, and in particular its main threat. That’s a shame, since there is a more distinct plot that feels like it’s screaming to get out from the studio-friendly sheen. It’s not quite enough though, even if The House with a Clock in its Walls still largely succeeds as fantastical comfort food for those who need a break from the dark, violent fantasy that often dominates modern media, or at the very least have children that are too young for that stuff at this point.
Perhaps the most bizarrely interesting thing about The House with a Clock in its Walls isn’t anything in the movie itself, but the real-world fact that it’s directed by Eli Roth. Yes, that Eli Roth, the very same one that brought us the Hostel movies, The Green Inferno and the very recent Death Wish remake. Roth has never helmed anything less than a very grisly R-rated movie up to this point, so calling The House with a Clock in its Walls a very abrupt heel turn certainly feels like an understatement! Still, I suppose there is something to be said about the surprising degree of likability that Roth brings to the material, even when it seems so far removed from his usual wheelhouse that it may as well be on a different planet entirely!
There’s no shortage of wide-eyed wonder and charm throughout The House with a Clock in its Walls, which, amazingly, doesn’t ever truly manage to feel scary. It has the same sort of faux-gothic presentation that Goosebumps had in 2015 (and this is possibly a deliberate effort to ape the style of that movie, like I said), wherein it may feel a bit appealingly gloomy to children, even if there isn’t any actual risk of real horror, particularly for adults. Even if the gothic atmosphere is presented in a family-friendly style though, there is a fairly effective emphasis on cartoon-ish fantasy that has The House with a Clock in its Walls unfolding with a sense of real imagination. Had the movie not been so clearly holding back for kids, it may have achieved something truly standout, but what we get will still entertain as whimsical escapist fantasy, so long as you’re not looking for it to leave a lasting impression.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
Roth is reuniting with frequent composer, Nathan Barr, who composed the soundtracks for both Hostel movies as well as Roth’s breakout directing effort, Cabin Fever, and is as much seemingly out of his comfort zone as Roth would initially appear. Like Roth, Barr has a heavy background in grisly horror movies, which no doubt explains why Roth frequently hires him for his directing work. That being said, much like Roth’s direction, Barr does manage to put together a surprisingly lovable and charming musical suite for The House with a Clock in its Walls, despite it being very far removed from his apparent comfort zone. The score feels just as inoffensively fluffy as you’d imagine, and isn’t anything that will stick with moviegoers once the credits roll, but it gets the job done. Even when they’re suddenly working in a family-friendly realm, it seems like Roth and Barr still work very well together, and that’s great to see!
The rest of the soundtrack, as with much of the visuals and direction, feels heavily aimed at kids, which is to say that the sound design often feels like it’s pulling punches. The magical audio would feel right at home in a cartoon, as would the sentient house decorations that sound more huggable than they do imposing. The simple fun behind the audio job feels pretty refreshing and difficult to dislike however, especially after a long parade of brooding, dark fantasy offerings on both the big screen and the small screen lately. Again, it’s done in the service of pure, family-friendly escapism, and while it doesn’t excel, the sound design will keep your children especially entertained without too much effort, even if that does mean sneaking a few intrusive fart jokes here and there.
True to form, albeit not for director, Roth, the visual effects suite in The House with a Clock in its Walls is very CGI-heavy and not all that convincing in terms of realism. This is no doubt by design though, since the creatures and magic on display in the movie can entertain children without any real risk of frightening them, even if there’s nothing remotely realistic about what’s on display. This does mean that we get to enjoy a lot more colour and vibrancy than we do in many modern fantasy movies however, with any real darkness and grittiness thankfully left at the door to play up the good old-fashioned fun, with good effect. Like the sensibilities of the source novel, this allows The House with a Clock in its Walls to function well as fantasy comfort food, calling back to a more innocent time for big screen live-action fantasy, before almost every fantasy filmmaker started trying to emulate Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and latter-era Harry Potter.
The House with a Clock in its Walls even managed to get approved for an IMAX cut, despite not really offering a 3D cut, outside of a 3D rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video that plays before the movie in select IMAX theatres. This is a bit strange, since The House with a Clock in its Walls seems like the kind of movie that would lend itself beautifully to a 3D presentation, but that doesn’t seem to be how it was designed. Regardless, you can enhance the atmosphere a little bit with an IMAX theatre, even if it won’t do much for the family-friendly sound design, which is clearly softened so as to be more child-friendly. There’s no real pressing need to see the movie in IMAX, since the visuals are still quite good in a standard digital screening, but if you want to spring for the extra big IMAX screen, you don’t really lose anything by doing so. All told, the visuals are indeed one of the best elements of The House with a Clock in its Walls, even when they’re so blatantly CGI-heavy, and so blatantly diluted for children, so I wouldn’t blame anyone who wanted to get the most screen real estate out of them, assuming the IMAX option is available to you.
There isn’t ultimately too much to say about The House with a Clock in its Walls, which accomplishes what it sets out to do as a pleasantly entertaining, child-friendly throwback fantasy flick, even if it doesn’t really manage to go above and beyond with those expectations. It is definitely a cut above most September movie fare however, even if it’s just as disposable as you’d generally expect from this sluggish month. If you just want to lose yourself in some undemanding fantasy, or just want to keep your kids entertained for a little while, then The House with a Clock in its Walls is a solid choice as you wait for more impressive movie releases over the next few months, even if it’s definitely not anything that begs for a sequel.
If nothing else though, The House with a Clock in its Walls did manage to remind me that fantasy doesn’t always have to be terribly serious to be enjoyable. Early-era Harry Potter, among other classic examples of the genre,certainly managed to pack in more charm and intrigue than this movie ultimately does, but there’s still a definite heart beating within The House with a Clock in its Walls, which does at least try to be more than throwaway September weekend filler. It’s frustrating that the movie can’t ultimately realize those ambitions, leaving many of its best ideas to the imaginations of more mentally-developed adult viewers, but the effort is still noted. I imagine that Jack Black’s next family movie vehicle will probably erase this one from the moviegoing consciousness for the most part, but at least this sugary little odyssey is pretty entertaining while it lasts.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is a charming and lovable throwback to a simpler time for big screen fantasy, even if it doesn't manage to be much more than that.