With the 1980s nostalgia wave in full force, family friendly adventure movies brought to life by Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment brand are one of the flavors that filmmakers are imitating in order to ride the craze to its foregone conclusion. The House With A Clock In Its Walls is the latest to try its hand at success, and the fact that Amblin is behind its production definitely gives it a boost when it comes to earning genre credibility. However, director Eli Roth has perhaps delivered his greatest shock to Hollywood audiences with this film, as he fully understands and replicates the feeling of the Amblin canon with total conviction, and zero pretension.
After the death of his parents, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and his neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Those eccentricities turn out to be rather handy, as Jonathan is actually a Warlock, and Lewis is just the type of kid to dig that sort of thing. What begins as a bit of family bonding also starts unfolding a mystery lost to time, with not very much of it remaining before something evil starts to rear its head.
Despite the zany, madcap film The House With A Clock In Its Walls may pretend to be selling, the movie actually takes time to build its world and characters the right way. Writer Eric Kripke, in adapting the children's book by John Bellairs, captures all of the elements essential to the film's story, and doesn't take the shortcuts some kids' films might in order to favor spectacle. While this may throw some moviegoers off, as the madcap pacing the trailers suggest is absent from a good portion of the film, the story structure pays off. By time the fast-paced adventure content kicks in later in The House With A Clock In Its Walls' course of events, there are actual stakes at play, and characters to root for.
It also cannot be overstated how The House With A Clock In Its Walls has a fantastic cast that brings said material to life. In particular, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett's chemistry as a pair of bickering, but extremely friendly, neighbors sparkles throughout the film. Though it's Blanchett's Mrs. Zimmerman who threatens to steal the show every time she's on screen, as her comedic timing and dramatic gravitas anchors a lot of the film's emotional weight. Black, on the other hand, nails the whimsy of Jonathan's world, and keeps the comedic gears moving. Some of his gags will work better on the kids, but the adults will have something to laugh at as well. Together, with burgeoning talent Owen Vaccaro as the young protagonist Lewis, this band of misfits is quite entertaining, and effective.
As this is a family movie, The House With A Clock In Its Walls is indeed safe for your young ones to watch, although the older they are, the more they'll get out of the film's balance of kid approved comedy and the more mature moments of the film's spookier side. That said, the more intriguing the film gets, the darker pieces of its narrative seem to be shaded. As the mystery behind that titular clock unfolded, I found myself getting drawn deeper into The House With A Clock In The Walls' charms. While I knew some of the steps ahead of when they played out in the story, I still found myself enjoying those moves nonetheless. By time the action kicked in during the film's finale, I was glued to the film and loving every moment.
It's been an interesting year for Eli Roth, with Death Wish coming and going, despite it being more his stereotypical speed. In the tradition of directors like Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle, Roth's transition to the ins and outs of a family picture happened without missing a step, delivering a true blue Amblin branded romp that is as fun as it is colorful. The House With A Clock In Its Walls is an absolute blast of fun and whimsy, ready to take families on an adventure that the may be familiar with, but will nevertheless still smile to see returning to theaters, and not a minute too soon.