Based on a 1973 novel by John Bellairs, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is one of those family-friendly movies in which a kid gets into a fast-paced, supernatural or fantasy adventure.
Not exactly “Harry Potter” or Roald Dahl caliber, it recalls “Jumanji,” “Spy Kids,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and the recent “Goosebumps,” which also starred Jack Black.
But, unlike those movies, which ramp up action and peril, are noisy and flashy and pour on jokes about bodily waste, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” has an old-fashioned tone.
It takes a few magical moments to savor the wonder and magic of the title house before all heck breaks loose.
It begins in 1955, as young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), newly orphaned, goes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in an enormous, very strange mansion, surrounded by jack-o-lanterns (even though it’s not Halloween).
He also meets Jonathan’s neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett); the two grownups have a bickering but friendly relationship.
It turns out they’re warlocks and sorcerers, and Lewis wants to begin training as a warlock, too.
But Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are keeping a secret from Lewis. They are searching for a mysterious clock hidden in the walls, whose chimes seem to be counting down to something. And time is running out.
Kyle MacLachlan costars as a dead but powerful magician, and Renée Elise Goldsberry is his bride Selena.
The house is truly wonderful (weirdo outsider kids who love monsters or astronomy will be in heaven). There’s a garden with a 3D map of the galaxy, rooms full of mechanical creatures, cavernous libraries, a chair that behaves like a pet dog and a fireplace shaped like a huge, gaping mouth.
Jonathan announces that Lewis can eat chocolate chip cookies for dinner and stay up as late as he wants. His only rule is not to open a certain locked case, which, of course, gets opened.
Lewis, who wears goggles like his hero Captain Midnight and sports a Magic 8 Ball (a gift from his late parents), is never pushed into any kind of danger that seems too much.
Despite the horror-movie stuff on display, the movie is strictly Saturday matinee material. Yet it comes from Eli Roth, director of dubious horror (“Cabin Fever”), crude “torture-porn” (“Hostel,” “Hostel: Part II”), violent, sub-par remakes (“The Green Inferno,” “Death Wish”) and a vile, nasty little item called “Knock Knock.”
Perhaps he took a cue from Quentin Tarantino’s friend Robert Rodriguez, whose “Spy Kids” was a similar kid-friendly movie with a scrappy, homemade feel.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is refreshingly bright and bold, and feels as if it were carved out from a real place, by hand, as if Roth has finally given us a glimpse of something he cared about.
Some of the effects seem gloriously vintage and practical, especially compared to cheap-looking CGI in other scenes, especially a creepy sequence in which Black turns into a baby.
While Roth is usually interested in abusing his actors, he gets fine, crisp performances from Black and Blanchett; they seem to truly enjoy each other’s company.
Certainly, the movie could have been tightened up and a few urination and defecation jokes could have been trimmed. Still, it has a brisk, vigorous pace. Almost as if it were a finely-tuned timepiece itself, it never outstays its welcome.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan
Written by: Eric Kripke
Directed by: Eli Roth
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes