The Halloween-appropriate ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ wackily mixes elements of ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Harry Potter,’ with a nuanced message about learning to live after pain.
Kernel Rating: 4 (4 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 105 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. This children’s mystery is set after World War II and alludes to the horrors of the war in a few different ways; one character is a Holocaust survivor, although her family was killed, and another character was so altered by the trauma he saw that he turns destructive and murderous. One character comes back from the dead and is responsible for various deaths; one character’s parents die offscreen in a car accident; and there are various spooky visuals, including a room full of toys and figurines that come to life, evil pumpkins that throw up their insides, and the Devil with creepily long fingernails and teeth. Also some bullying, both physical and verbal; a topiary creature that comes to life and is prone to going to the bathroom everywhere (including on a young character); and adult characters call each other names, albeit affectionately.
By Roxana Hadadi
Starting over can be exceptionally hard—for children who have lost their parents and who have moved to a new town and a new school, and for adults who have experienced a great loss and lived through something horrendous and inexplicable. But the common connection for people of all ages if they want to survive is an appreciation of human life, and that bond is what unites the characters in the spooky, silly, poignant “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.”
Underneath the film’s Halloween-ready styling is an insightful message about how loving others is to accept the pain that may come with that feeling. Sure, there’s a creepy house filled with clocks, with a stained glass window that changes its image, with an armchair that acts more like an overzealous puppy than static furniture, with dozens and dozens of clocks placed on every surface and hung on every wall. That all builds a very moody mystique, one that kids who love the Oct. 31 holiday will adore. But the movie also works to teach empathy and resilience, and the balance of wisdom and wacky is quite good.
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” follows 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, of “Daddy’s Home 2”), who after the death of his parents moves to New Zebedee, Michigan, to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”). Lewis doesn’t really know his uncle because of his estrangement from the rest of the family, and he’s surprised by the new arrangement: his uncle’s house is full of weird artifacts; one of the neighbors complains about saxophone playing at 3 a.m.; and Lewis thinks he tears a ticking noise coming from inside the house—a suspicion that is confirmed when he sees his uncle slinking around at night, putting a stethoscope up to walls.
What is going on? Soon it’s revealed that Jonathan and his friend and neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, of “Ocean’s 8”)—“Your uncle and I aren’t anything kissy-faced,” she assures Lewis—practice magic, are a proper warlock and a witch, and they’re after something: one of their friends has hidden something inside Jonathan’s house. They’re worried that what is hidden could be very dangerous, so they forbid Lewis from doing only one thing: opening a locked cabinet inside the home and using the spellbook inside. So what does Lewis do? Of course, use the spellbook, unleashing a series of events that puts all of them in grave danger.
Vaccaro is adorable, and plays off Black’s zaniness quite well; he portrays the overwhelming feelings of a child who has lost his parents and is thrust into a new reality with emotional depth. Even when Lewis makes the wrong choices, you understand why. Black is great, per usual for his late-career resurgence in family films, and Blanchett adds a regality to the proceedings, even as her character and Black’s enjoy indulging in increasingly heated bouts of name-calling.
The climax of the film, though, could be scary for younger viewers, since the existence of all humankind ends up being at stake; if Lewis, Jonathan, and Florence don’t work together, everyone they know and love could be erased. But the way the movie incorporates very real societal fears after World War II while also paying homage to Halloween imagery and tropes makes for an effectively funny and emotional family film that is a great pick for this time of year.
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