I don’t know anything about the 1973 novel the new movie The House With A Clock In Its Walls is based on, but the movie hints at a story that’s much more melancholy and emotionally complex than what we actually get. It seems like it could have been a tale about dealing with grief and loss, set against the wonder and whimsy of magic and wizards and witches.
Instead, director Eli Roth decided to go for much more of a funhouse romp, leaving aside any emotional weight in favor of demonic jack-o-lanterns, creepy animated dolls, and a few poop jokes.
And that would have been fine, but even at that, Roth pulls his punches. The movie stars Jack Black as the uncle of a boy named Lewis. Lewis, our hero, has lost his parents in a car accident, and is sent to live with Black in his spooky mansion. We learn that Black is a warlock, the good kind, and Lewis learns many magical secrets, both from his uncle and from their neighbor, a witch named Florence played by Cate Blanchett, who at some point also lost her entire family.
Now, Jack Black is the kind of actor who can really let loose, and personally, I find his enthusiasm infectious, but for some reason here, they’ve really dialed him back. It’s like he’s at a four when his scale goes up to 11. And this is kind of how the entire movie operates. Eli Roth, making his first foray into family-friendly filmmaking after a career of bloody horror movies, just kind of pulls the reins and never lets the movie truly go bonkers or get really exciting. And if this was the direction he decided to go with this story, why not just take it over the top? And why hire Jack Black if you’re not going to let him really take off?
It all just feels like a real missed opportunity. All of the personal loss Lewis and Florence have experienced barely registers as more than a plot point, so we have no real emotional stakes, and the potential fun of the magical elements end up feeling like pale imitations of better movies. None of it is bad, really, it’s just so uninspired. And frankly, I spent a good part of The House With A Clock In Its Walls looking at the clock on the movie theater wall, just counting the minutes until it was over.