An unbalanced alchemy of diluted Harry Potter and Tim Burton’s fetish for the morbidly adorable, The House with a Clock in Its Walls never manages to be as clever and cuddly as it thinks it is. This cinematic avenue, with a group of amiable weirdos surrounded by suburban normality on all sides–call it Roald Dahl Boulevard—has been traveled before by better movies. Game performances by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are left stranded by the story’s stale, pre-heated whimsy and mechanical pacing—the latter unfortunately accentuated by the constantly ticking clocks.
The story starts when young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, another strong player), like so many child protagonists before him, is orphaned and sent to live with extended family: His Uncle Jonathon (Jack Black, wearing a kimono, bears striking resemblance to Orson Welles) whisks Lewis to a Scooby Doo wonder mansion, where everything is weird for weird’s sake. Virtually everything in this house, from the recliner to the farting shrubbery, is alive and quirky and has something magical to add to the story.
Jonathon breaks the news that he is a warlock (“a boy witch,” Lewis corrects him), and his enchanted house holds the key that could save time and space. These two join forces with an emotionally fragile witch (Cate Blanchett, doing her best Angela Lansbury) to find a cursed clock, thwart an evil wizard (Stephen Colbert—wait, that’s Kyle McLaughlin!), and, you know, grow into an eccentric little family along the way. The story occasionally happens upon moments of charm and wonder, such as when Jonathan conjures a 3D planetarium in the backyard, but these scenes are the exception, not the rule.
It’s strange that the film is barely 100 minutes long, and still somehow stalls and sputters. The boy—again, like every other damn kid in every other story like this—is precocious yet painfully introverted, and the film fumbles over a coming of age subplot. As he starts a new school, Lewis works hard to get a bratty little shit (Sunny Suljic) to like him. He gets picked last for sports. A classmate may have a crush on him and…on and on. These scenes could’ve added some necessary oomph, but as is they just feel undercooked.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls finds itself in a no man’s land: It’s too dark and frightening for younger audiences, and likely too pedantic for adults. It’s technically impressive (the special effects pop better than a lot of mega-budget movies and the 50’s period detail is spot-on), yet still lands with a thud. With a glut of children’s movies out there (across all kinds of media), this is one you can safely skip.