The House With a Clock in Its Walls
Directed by Eli Roth
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro
Rated PG for thematic elements, including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
1 hr., 44 mins.

There haven’t been many children’s films this summer. I have the feeling this may suggest a shift in media producers’ attention from theater to cable and Internet content. It’s getting harder to get those little ones away from their TVs, laptops and phones. Heck, just getting people to turn off their phones in the theater is challenge enough.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls certainly has star power behind it. Produced by DreamWorks, featuring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, I had hoped for something smart and funny, or charming, or even scary. Unfortunately, this movie is like paying for a large iced tea and receiving a medium cup.

The year is 1955. Ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), whose parents have died in a car accident, is going to live with his uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), in New Zebedee, Michigan. What Lewis discovers is that Uncle Jonathan is a warlock who lives in a large haunted house filled with hundreds of clocks, toy dolls and other weird paraphernalia.

His uncle’s so-called friend is his grumpy next-door neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). She is a powerful witch but emotionally ineffective, due to the death of her husband and daughter.

Lewis is a strange lad. He wears flight goggles as a tribute to his favorite TV hero, Captain Midnight. He’s obsessed with dictionaries. He’s also small and shy. All of this makes his life at school difficult. The one friend he manages to make, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), later ditches him when Lewis uses a spell to raise a dead body in the local graveyard.

The house, however, is dominated by a ticking clock that exists somewhere in the walls. It was installed by the previous owner, magician Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife, Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry), to drive Uncle Jonathan crazy.

It’s working. Jonathan makes nightly journeys through the house searching for the clock, tearing at the walls, and scaring poor Lewis half to death. What’s worse, the clock was installed to bring about the end of the world. It’s only a matter of time before its final tick. With everyone in a state of chaos, finding the clock and turning it off proves to be a major hurdle.

Oh, did I mention that the dead body Lewis raised was the old warlock and magician Isaac Izard? Yeah, that proves to be a problem, too.

While all the pieces are here to make for a great source of entertainment, what seems to be missing is an intangible element called inspiration.

The movie has moments of comedy, tension and even a bit of heart. But it’s like the workings of a clock. The many pieces need to fit together to tell time. Not so in this case. The House With a Clock in Its Walls just feels disoriented.

Director Eli Roth, known more for his horror films (Hostel, for one), has his hands tied here. Roth as horror guru loves the gory stuff; you can tell he’s aching to shake his chains. The PG rating, however, doesn’t allow much room for blood and guts. What we end up with are sneak peeks into the movie’s potential. As a result, the usual talents of Black and Blanchett are wasted in a plot that is as predictable as time itself.

So kids might enjoy this film just for its content. Adults will laugh occasionally and maybe cringe at all the pumpkin mess. But for a film with this much talent, I have to say that while it’s not a total waste, it sure falls short of what might have been. As some in the business might say, The House ends up just being a minor bit of silliness.