At the risk of sounding very ‘old man yells at cloud’, kids films aren’t what they used to be. Animated masterpieces from Pixar and its peers are on offer, of course, but it’s been a while since a live-action family-friendly fantasy really captured the imagination beyond a Sunday morning cinema trip, sticking in the memory like we all remember from our own childhoods.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls wants to be the solution to that. Based on John Bellairs’ book series and brought to the screen by Supernatural’s Eric Kripke and Eli Roth, it’s a big, bold age-appropriate frightener that picks up where the early 00s left off and carves out something both decidedly throwback and thoroughly modern.
We enter the film’s zany world through ten-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), recently orphaned and sent to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Lewis immediately suspects that something about his uncle’s house isn’t right, and his suspicions aren’t dampened any by overheard hushed conversations between him and neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).
Soon, after discovering that his uncle is actually a warlock (‘a boy witch,’ he says matter of factly), and the house is alive in a Beauty And The Beast (without the creepy curse) kind of way, Lewis insists on learning about magic himself and joining Jonathan and Florence in their search for the ominous clock left behind by bad warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) before it’s too late.
Eli Roth is of course the surprise name here, departing from a decade and a half of R-rated gore fests to enter an entirely different space in which his usual tricks aren’t allowed under the PG-rating. It’s a shockingly good fit, however, with Roth’s experience with the tricks and tropes of the genre translating very well to this more tempered, but never toothless, subject matter. You can tell that he knows what he’s doing, and Kripke’s experience with delivering non-traumatising frights on television don’t hurt.
But you can’t talk about House With A Clock without also talking about Jack Black. The recent Goosebumps revival is as close to this in spirit as anything in recent memory and, as with that film, it’s a reminder that Black is really great at a lot of things, including this. The character of Jonathan gives the actor the opportunity to stretch both his comedic and dramatic legs, and he’s one of those rare performers who can switch between the two without missing a beat.
Cate Blanchett is the cherry on top. If you’ve ever wanted to see an Oscar-winning actress headbutt an animated pumpkin before doing a backflip, then this film is for you. But it’s Florence’s story that also grounds the film in something a little less magical, and a lot darker. The atrocities of the war are never really mentioned explicitly except in providing a motive for its villain, but it’s aftermath hangs over the characters like a spectre of loss and trauma.
It’s the perfect set-up for a film of this kind. As we know, all of the best young literary heroes have to have lost their parents before the action starts, but what’s most refreshing here is that the adults also get to deal with their own demons even when it doesn’t relate directly to Lewis.
There are so many great things about the first two thirds of House With A Clock that the let-down of the third act feels like even more of a disappointment. The build-up to a final showdown is enjoyable enough, and the movie looks great throughout, but everything soon becomes too chaotic and a lot of the heart becomes lost in the shuffle. There’s also an image of Jack Black after a troubling transformation that will haunt you until your dying day. Seriously, it’s horrifying.
Still, House With A Clock In Its Walls is a wonderful surprise and one I hope doesn’t fly under the radar. Although the film is far from perfect, the cinematic landscape could certainly use a little more of this kind of thing and, with twelve novels to draw from, it wouldn’t be difficult to make it into a franchise. In a world where the Harry Potter franchise is more concerned with ethnic cleansing and Johnny Depp, kids need a new magical trio to root for.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls is in UK cinemas from Friday.