In 1955, an orphan boy goes to live in an enchanted house with his uncle, who happens to be a warlock (with a witch for a neighbour), and soon gets caught up in an apocalyptic conspiracy.
Whoa – that’s some epic-level material for a children’s book, written back in 1973 and the first of 12 in a series of junior magical mysteries by John Bellairs.
The book has been hailed for its snappy dialogue, for engaging both head and heart, and for giving young readers an appropriate perspective of good and evil.
The movie adaptation gets some of these things right, mainly the dialogue and repartee between its main characters.
That’s because two of them are played by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, who have an easy and winning chemistry as the uncle and neighbour respectively; and the screenplay is written by Eric Kripke, creator of TV’s Supernatural and no stranger to snappy banter.
Visually, too, The House With A Clock In Its Walls is neatly brought to life with creepy mannequins, an animated armchair, a living topiary griffin and an ever-changing stained glass window to hold our attention when Black and Blanchett are not sniping at each other.
What it really needed, though, was a little more gusto in its cinematic spellcasting.
Horror auteur Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel, Green Inferno) – directing his first family-friendly film here – doesn’t always succeed in conjuring up a sense of wonder, both in the feats of magic and where the central character is concerned.
Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, Daddy’s Home), the 10-year-old hero of the piece, seems to be all over the place: giant nerd (always good), scaredy-cat, lost boy, potentially gifted in the mystic arts, a loner who just wants to fit in with the cool kids at school.
Nothing against a character having multiple aspects, but Lewis’s transitions occur somewhat abruptly, his tutelage in magic appears quite random, and the kids-at-school parts seem like retreads from other vehicles.
Not the young actor’s fault, really, as he handles his material – including some truly eyeball-rolling, clumsily-written scenes – with a veteran’s aplomb.
The trouble here lies in the leaden, contrived ways in which Kripke and Roth advance Lewis’s story at times.
As such, it is hard to become immersed in the lad’s new, wondrous world through his eyes, something that is important for a kids’ film to connect with the older viewers who are there mainly to accompany its core young audience to the cinema.
Roth is to be commended, though, for the effort to break out of his comfort zone – an effort that extends to a campy cameo by the filmmaker (hint: it’s in black and white).
And at least we have Black, Blanchett and the quirkiness of Bellairs’ setting and characters to keep us entertained, if not always enchanted.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls
Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp