It’s a shame that the Tim Burton of 25 years ago wasn’t able to travel forward in time to direct The House With a Clock in Its Walls, because he would have absolutely nailed it. Instead, the movie version of John Bellairs’ beloved 1973 young adult novel falls to Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno), who tones down his penchant for empty shock value so thoroughly that the result comes off as a little bland. There’s so little distinctive style to the movie that it could have been directed by anyone. It’s still perfectly pleasant, though, and even if it might not satisfy the generations who grew up on Bellairs’ book, it’ll probably be good enough for their kids.
Relative newcomer Owen Vaccaro plays 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (who’s been the hero of a dozen novels), an orphan sent to live with his mysterious uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in the town of New Zebedee, Michigan, following his parents’ death in a car accident. Vaccaro isn’t quite up to the task of carrying the movie, and putting him in between Black and Cate Blanchett as Jonathan’s neighbor Florence Zimmerman just highlights how un-magical his performance is. But Black (recalling his role in 2015’s Goosebumps) and Blanchett are clearly having a great time as bickering mystics who usher Lewis into a world of spells and secrets.
Jonathan is a warlock, Florence is a witch (although her powers are on the fritz because she’s grieving the loss of her husband and daughter), and the foreboding old house where Jonathan lives has, yes, a clock in its walls. And not just any clock – it’s a hidden, cursed timepiece created by the house’s late previous owner, warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who plans to use it to literally turn back time and wipe out humanity.
So Lewis has to use his newfound skills to help Jonathan and Florence keep evil forces at bay, but he also has to come to terms with the loss of his parents and adjust to life in a new town and at a new school (where he’s treated like an outcast). Set in 1955, the movie has a rosy, nostalgic glow, even when exploring darker territory as the story progresses. There are a handful of creepy moments (although Jonathan kind of undermines them by exclaiming “Creepy!” each time), but it would be a stretch to characterize anything in House as scary. It’s more like a reliable, old-fashioned carnival ride, in which patrons play along by screaming at the obviously fake skeletons and sheet-covered ghosts.
Those rides can still be plenty of fun, though, and House is too charming to really dislike. With stylish purple outfits and striking silver hair, Blanchett is the best thing about every scene she’s in, whether she’s battling jack-o’-lantern demons or baking chocolate chip cookies. The design of the house is suitably intricate and playful, with the sense that new strange discoveries lurk around every corner. Both Blanchett and the setting are a bit underused, though, and the story loses urgency toward the climax, despite the fate of the world being at stake. It’s a cute, sanitized version of impending doom, entirely family-friendly but unlikely to captivate anyone older than Lewis himself.