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The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Nearly 20 years since the first Harry Potter film took the world by storm, seven years since that film series ended, and Hollywood is still chasing after the literary fantasy YA film adaptation to replicate its success. This time, Hollywood is reaching way back, though not as far back as the Narnia books of the 1950s, or even back to “A Wrinkle in Time” from the 1960s. Having already tapped those wells, our sights now turn to an iconic YA fantasy book from the 1970s.

“A House with a Clock in Its Walls”, was written by Lewis Bellairs in 1973, but the series was handed off to Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ passing in 1991. Yes, the series has been going on for that long. There are twelve books in the series so far, with the latest being published in 2008! Granted, that was a decade ago, but I can’t find any confirmation that the 12th book was intended as the last one and the series kept going for so long and through so much, who knows?!

The point is that while this series doesn’t have the audience of Harry Potter or the iconic brand recognition of Narnia, this series clearly has an audience. You don’t get to twelve books in 35 years without leaving behind some kind of influence on the genre. But with the film adaptation, a problem becomes immediately apparent. See if you can spot it.

Our protagonist is a pre-teen named Lewis, played by Owen Vaccaro. After his parents are killed in some unspecified accident, Lewis moves out to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Upon arrival, Lewis discovers the existence of magic and promptly learns how to wield his own magical abilities, just in time to stop an evil sorcerer (Isaac Izard, played by Kyle MacLachlan) from destroying the world.

Sound familiar?

To be clear, there are certain crucial differences. For example, the eccentric uncle is the kind and loving magical mentor to our young protagonist, rather than an aggressively non-magical asshole who abuses the lead character to keep him “normal”. There’s also an absence of a “Chosen One” narrative, and the main character goes to a perfectly mundane middle school while learning magic under his uncle’s tutelage, instead of the magic exposition and schoolboy drama happening under the same roof. Perhaps most importantly, Clock is much better at telling a self-contained narrative without quite so many dangling loose ends as sequel-bait.

However, the inescapable fact remains that the Clock movie was made to capitalize on the Harry Potter movies, which capitalized on the Harry Potter books, which in turn capitalized (however unknowingly or indirectly) on the Bellairs books. The end result is a story made threadbare and dated after 45 years of influence and imitations, adapted into a movie genre made threadbare and dated after two decades of other Harry Potter imitations. It’s the worst of both worlds.

There’s no way around it, folks: This movie doesn’t really deliver anything new. Pretty much every character and plot thread is a rehash of something we’ve already seen a million times before. Even if there are any kids out there young enough that they haven’t already seen this stuff a million times, they’ve probably already seen the Harry Potter films enough times to smell a ripoff. Granted, there’s a lot of good thematic material in here about individuality and being brave, but even that is stuff that anyone could find in pretty much any half-decent kids’ entertainment.

The film loses major points about halfway through, when Lewis does something impossibly, unforgivably stupid despite the numerous roadblocks and giant flashing signs saying “THIS IS A BAD IDEA!!!” The filmmakers had to beat their main character so many times with the Idiot Stick, creating so many contrivances for this one plot-motivated action, that bringing myself to care what happened afterwards took serious effort on my part. Hell, the filmmakers could have simply rewritten their own rules for magic and made the whole thing moot to begin with, so this entire godawful and transparent sequence of events was both stupid and unnecessary.

The performances don’t exactly help matters. It’s hard to prevent that bored sense of deja vu as we watch Jack Black play his same old schtick for the umpteenth time. We’ve also got Renee Elise Goldsberry, here criminally underused as she only shows up in the third act long enough to chew scenery like she doesn’t give a fuck about anything but the paycheck. Oh, and the child actors are awful. All of them, across the board. Owen Vaccaro is the only one who raises to the level of “mediocre”. I’m sorry, but this kid is not ready to be a leading actor.

But then we have Cate Blanchett, here playing the washed-up witch who lives next door and immediately befriends Lewis. She’s good. In fact, she’s insultingly good. Blanchett was given so much to work with, and she does so incredibly much with it, that she makes the rest of the movie look bad. Seriously, putting Jack Black at his hammiest next to a seasoned pro like Cate Blanchett was probably the worst casting choice anyone could have made.

Kyle MacLachlan deserves mention as well. He doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time and his character is primarily an offscreen presence, but I really wanted to see more of him. This kind of uber-villainous role comes so naturally to MacLachlan that he was damned entertaining to watch.

Even so, the real star here is director Eli Roth. Yes, that Eli Roth. He gets a cameo appearance and everything. The notoriously bloody shock filmmaker would seem like the absolute last man to helm a fantasy kids’ flick, but the man has strengths that are actually quite effective here. To start with, Roth’s well-known fondness for retro cinema gives the whole movie a slightly pulpy flavor, with a detailed ’70s feel that sets itself apart from other Harry Potter knockoffs.

Also, while Roth is commonly dismissed as a tasteless hack, he certainly knows his way around horror cinema. He knows how to craft a film that’s creepy and scary without resorting to cheap jump scares or impenetrable shadows. In particular, his rhythmic use of ticking clocks and booming chimes creates a marvelous sense of dread. From start to finish, it’s clear that Roth set out to create a film that was genuinely scary in a way that was suitable for all ages — not an easy task, but Roth managed it surprisingly well. Even the moments of gross-out horror are nicely effective.

The forced moments of gross-out humor, though, not so much.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls was an especially valiant effort at a new all-ages fantasy franchise, especially considering how many disastrous flops have come and gone in Harry’s wake. (Looking at you, Eragon.) Alas, Eli Roth’s direction (and a delightful turn from Cate Blanchett) are really all this movie has going for it. Without Roth’s affinity for old-school cinema and his battle-tested experience with horror cinema, all we’d be left with is a threadbare story set in a frankly unremarkable world. I don’t care about the generic lead character or the boring actor playing him, I really don’t care to see Jack Black playing himself for the hundred billionth time, and there’s nothing about this world of magic that I’d particularly care to revisit or know anything about.

This is probably worth a second-run viewing and easily worth a rental, but don’t expect anything more than a forgettable and disposable quick little fantasy romp.

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