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Friday, September 21, 2018

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

There are things I enjoyed about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but the movie as a whole failed to connect with me.  I liked the performances from the two stars, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, who share a surprisingly strong comedic chemistry here.  But the characters they're playing are just not that engaging.  I also admired the film's set design.  The titular house where a majority of the action takes place is a mix of Hogwarts and the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland, with a touch of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. (There are objects around the house such as a chair, a pipe organ and a suit of armor that can move around on their own.) But, the story never quite picks up enough steam to the point that the house truly feels like anything more than an impressive set.  This is a movie that's all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The plot is borrowed from a 1973 children's mystery novel by John Bellairs, which is apparently beloved by many, but I had never heard of until I saw the trailer for the film.  A boy named Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned after he loses his parents in a car accident.  He is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) who lives in a brooding old house that is eternally dark and creepy, and decorated with Jack O'Lanterns at all times of the year with iron gates at the entrance. ("To keep evil spirits out", he says.) As Lewis spends time around the house, he notices strange things, such as how a stained glass window within the house seems to move and be a different image every time he looks at it.  And late at night, Lewis thinks he can hear the sound of a clock ticking somewhere within the walls of the house.  While he sleeps, Jonathan wanders the halls alone, seemingly searching for the source of the mystery ticking sound.

Lewis is a sharp kid, and quickly picks up on the fact that his uncle is actually a warlock, or "boy witch" as this movie calls them.  Jonathan is not the only magic user on the block, as his next door neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a witch herself, and possesses even stronger magic than Lewis' uncle.  Since he's having a hard time fitting in at school, Lewis decides to "embrace the weird", and wants to learn magic.  Jonathan and Florence oblige, and before long, Lewis is learning all about basic magic.  But, as he delves into the world where his uncle lives, he learns that there is a darker side to the house.  Its former owner, a warlock by the name of Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), was attempting to unleash an apocalyptic spell, but died before it could be completed.  Now, evil forces are at work to revive Isaac from the land of the dead, and the mysterious clock hidden within the walls of the house seem to be ticking down to the end of all mankind.

This is a movie that seems to have everything going for it.  It promises plenty of mystery and adventures with magical spells, and I enjoyed the kind of playful tone that the film takes with its own mystery.  It's mysterious and eerie, but never actually scary, so children don't need to be too worried.  The film is directed by Eli Roth, who is best known for making films built around extreme gore such as the Hostel franchise, and is probably the last person you would expect to be behind a family-friendly adventure film.  However, I think he finds the right tone for this movie.  Yes, it can be suspenseful at times, but there is always a kind of goofy energy to the film that's bound to appeal to kids.  I also greatly enjoyed the screen presence of Black and Blanchett, and the way they would comically insult one another as only real friends sometimes do.  It's an acting combo that really shouldn't work, but by some strange force of nature, it does, and they're great together every time they share the screen.

And yet, the film ultimately feels hollow and empty, and I think I know why.  There's absolutely no weight to the story.  As much as I admired the fantastic sets, the performances and the funny touches, I never felt truly involved, because the movie takes so long to get going.  So much is built around Lewis uncovering secrets about the house and his new uncle and learning magic, that the movie ends up feeling kind of weightless.  And when the evil warlock finally enters the story and things start to pick up, the whole thing kind of flies off the rails and turns into endless special effects with no sense of purpose.  Our heroes are attacked by creepy dolls brought to life by magic and vicious pumpkin monsters that vomit goop all over them, and yet, there is never a sense of genuine thrills.  We're simply watching the actors react to the special effects that were added in later.  With all the CG creatures and frantic action that's crammed into the last 15 minutes or so, it starts to feel like a demo for the inevitable video game adaptation of the movie.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls promises us wonder, and gives us meaningless special effects and characters that don't feel developed.  Everything we learn about these characters we discover through clunky and lengthy exposition dialogue that stops the film dead in its tracks.  Someone will just need to start explaining the backstory of Florence Zimmerman, and why she doesn't like to use her magic, or the personal connection that uncle Jonathan once had with the evil Isaac, and what drove them apart.  The technique this film uses to pass information to the audience lacks grace, and feels like the filmmakers had no idea how or when to fit the backstories for these people in.  The pacing also feels off, with most of the film being curiously leisurely, then suddenly ramping things up to insane levels for the third act.  Like I said, I have not read the book, but the entire third act feels like a good six chapters or so crammed into less than a half hour.

This is one of those movies that seems to be trying to tap into the mystery and the thrill of childhood adventures, but looses its nerve, and just turns into another soulless blockbuster that you're likely to forget less than a week after you watch it.  There is stuff to admire here, but when it's all over, there's just not a whole lot memorable about it either.

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