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Review: Jack Black fantasy 'The House With a Clock in Its Walls' has magic - no tick

Courtesy of Universal Pictures


In one of the more eye raising career changes in recent memory, splatterfest afficneido Eli Roth (the same guy who brought us the torture-porn ‘Hostel;’ cannibal feast “The Green Inferno” and the gory “Cabin Fever) has decided to flex his muscles in a different category never touched by his hands: family friendly.

An odd and weird combination from the start, and hoping to be a nostalgic throwback to the realms of “Back To The Future” and “Casper” with a spice of “Jumanji” meets “Goosebumps” - Roth’s ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls” gets less interesting the more you dig deeper. Presenting one image on the outside, only to crumble as soon as the layers become peeled for consumption. Needless to say, the clock isn’t that interesting.

Blending hokey and cheesy special effects to iffy results, “Clock” follows the trials of young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), the average 10 year old who's just lost his parents via some unavoidable tragedy, and has been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Johnathan (Jack Black - continuing to be his lovable and goofy self) in the depths of New Zeebe, Michigan circa 1955.

Johnathan is often paired up with his platonic companion Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett - who with Black often engage in a tirade of insults and banter that’s seemingly the best thing in the film) who both oversee his creaky old manor that has a slight ticking problem. The issue is a clock which has been left on an unusual timer, meaning, it never stops making a ratchet.

All of this hinges on a backstory involving the mansions previous owner, an evildoer named Isaac Izzard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry) who both perished years earlier while trying to create a mechanism that could wreak havoc on the nature of time. Hence the timepiece that still remains buried within the walls. We are then forced to bare witness to a slew of spells, wizards, witches, and warlocks trying to battle for screen time.

Lewis eventually becomes an unofficial apprentice and reluctantly picks up his family trait of sorcery and magic rather quickly. From then on out, “Clock” begins to lose that initial charm. It’s like Roth becomes so caught up in trying to pay homage to the Amblin classics that defined his childhood, he forgets to dial down the exposition for the small fries in attendance.

Ironic that a film about time has no regard for any (“House” runs a meandering 104 minutes) with Blanchett and Black being just decent enough to rise above the silly constructs of the script. Part of me wishes Roth who is cheekily known for his practical effects, would’ve tested that route here. Instead, we get a bloated CGI smashing pumpkins royale, and creepy mannequins that look painfully laughable.

It would be wrong to say that “House” - with its ginormous atmosphere, big doors, brass locks and oversize rooms that could spook the 8-10 year old demographic without doing permanent damage - isn’t inventive. It’s just that Amblin has defined this genre of movie magic for decades. But if the idea was for Roth to showcase his talents on the other side of the moviegoing spectrum, he tones down his style quite nicely. For now, we will just have to wait and see if “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” can stand the test of time.

Grade: C

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