The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the adaptation of a beloved children's book, is directed by Eli Roth. The same Eli Roth who made the Hostel movies, which practically defined the term "torture porn," as well as Cabin Fever and the recent Death Wish reboot and the cannibalism-oriented eco-horror film The Green Inferno. The same Eli Roth who played the baseball-bat-wielding Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds and directed Knock Knock, a film in which Keanu Reeves is first seduced and then tortured by a pair of naughty school girls.
In other words, Roth is, perhaps, not the first person you might think of to bring a PG-rated young adult fantasy movie to the big screen. But he was an inspired choice: The House with a Clock in Its Walls has a slick competence and cleverness that will appeal to adults looking for an afternoon activity with their kids and has just enough menace lurking under the surface to make the film tense but not terrifying for younger viewers.
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Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is headed off to live with his crazy uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) following the untimely death of his parents in a car crash. He's an odd duck, having traveled by bus to his new home with little more than a Magic 8 Ball and a dictionary (he likes learning new words) and a pair of goggles that make him look like a refugee from a film about fighter aces set during World War One.
As an odd duck, Lewis will fit right in with Jonathan and his (platonic) purple-preferring pal, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Jonathan is a warlock, Florence is a witch, and the pair are happy to initiate Lewis into the world of magic and mystery. His new skills don't really help him win friends at school—though trying to impress buddy-turned-bully Tarby (Sunny Suljic) has dire consequences for Lewis and his new housemate later on in the film—but they might aid Jonathan in his efforts to figure out what, exactly the titular timepiece in the bones of the house is doing there.
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are perfect in their roles as the adult minders of the hopeful magician, Black bringing his patented manic energy and Blanchett bringing a dash of restrained class to the proceedings. They play off of each other well and ground the film in a darker reality than its magical setting might suggest: Zimmerman is hinted to be a Holocaust survivor and the group's foe, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, who feels modestly underutilized here), suffered horribly during combat.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls hits all the marks of young adult literature, being about the abandoned weirdo who discovers that his oddities are actually strengths and magic will help confirm just how special he truly is. It's often hard for me to tell which of these children's books will actually translate as films that actually appeal to children—I quite liked Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, which was far better than the early Harry Potter flicks (the first two of which are legitimately bad) or the Percy Jackson movies, yet failed to find a place in the public consciousness.
If this dies on the vine it's too bad: The House with a Clock in Its Walls is above-average children's fare that's just dark and clever enough to appeal to adults as well as kids.