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With: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo
Written by: Eric Kripke, based on a novel by John Bellairs
Directed by: Eli Roth
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
Running Time: 104
Date: 09/21/2018

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Once Upon a Time

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a 1973 novel by John Bellairs, and opening Friday in Bay Area theaters, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is one of those family-friendly movies in which a kid gets into some kind of fast-paced, supernatural or fantasy adventure.

Not exactly Harry Potter or Roald Dahl calibre, it instead recalls movies like Jumanji, Spy Kids, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the recent Goosebumps, which also starred Jack Black.

But whereas these kinds of movies have a tendency to ramp up the action and peril, emphasize noise and flash, and pour on the jokes about bodily waste, The House with a Clock in Its Walls has a certain 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 is also greeted by Jonathan's neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett); these two grownups have a bickering, but friendly relationship.

It turns out that they are warlocks and sorcerers, and Lewis decides he 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 co-stars as a dead, but powerful magician, and Renée Elise Goldsberry is his bride Selena.

This house is truly wonderful; any weirdo outsider kid who loves monsters or astronomy will be in heaven. There's a garden with its own 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.

The rules herein are nil; 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 or too far. Despite the horror-movie stuff on display, this is strictly Saturday matinee material.

What's striking is that it comes from Eli Roth, a director of dubious horror (Cabin Fever), crude examples of "torture-porn" (Hostel and Hostel: Part II), violent, sub-par remakes (The Green Inferno and Death Wish) and a vile, nasty little item called Knock Knock.

Perhaps he took a cue from another filmmaker in Quentin Tarantino's circle of friends, 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.

Even some of the effects scenes appear to be gloriously vintage and practical, especially when compared with cheap-looking CGI effects in other scenes (especially a creepy sequence in which Black turns into a baby).

And whereas Roth is usually interested in abusing his actors, he gets fine, crisp performances from both Black and Blanchett, and they seem to truly enjoy each other's company.

Certainly, the movie could have been tightened up a bit, and certainly a few urination and defecation jokes could have been trimmed, but overall it has a brisk, vigorous pace. Almost as if it were a finely-tuned timepiece itself, it never outstays its welcome.

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