[Screen It]


(2018) (Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black) (PG)

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Fantasy/Horror: A 10-year-old boy goes to live with his uncle and must contend with odd things happening in his house as well as the aftermath of being taught how to use magic.
It's 1955 and 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (OWEN VACCARO), orphaned by the death of his parents in a car accident, has arrived in the town of New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (JACK BLACK), who's long been estranged from the family.

Jonathan's house is somewhat creepy looking from the outside, and weird things seem to happen at night. All of which makes Lewis pay heed to rumors told to him by new classmate Tarby (SUNNY SULJIC) that the place is known as the Slaughter House due to ax murders that have taken place within its walls.

That's not true, but its former occupants -- the deceased Isaac Izard (KYLE MacLACHLAN) and the long-missing Selena (RENEE ELISE GOLDSBERRY) -- apparently hid a magic clock somewhere in the walls, and its constant nocturnal sounds are about to drive Jonathan crazy. And that's despite him being a warlock and his next-door neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (CATE BLANCHETT), being a witch.

As Jonathan eventually gives in to Lewis' requests to teach him magic, they and Florence eventually come to realize what Isaac and Selena were really up to as well as the potentially devastating ramifications of their plan.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
When I was a young kid, I really wanted to learn magic, and I'm still fascinated by both "street magic" and such intimate sleight of hand tricks as well as the larger stage shows where the seemingly impossible seems, well, possible.

That said, and despite growing up watching every episode of "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie," I never wanted or even fantasized about having that type of magic. You know where you could make bullies disappear...forever. And I had plenty of reasons why I could have used such powers.

That's a common thread in fantasy and sci-fi tales where the picked on kid unintentionally and accidentally find themselves imbued with some sort of supernatural abilities that allow them to deal with jerky kids, handle criminals or even save the day on some sort of mass scale.

Some of that comes into play in "The House With a Clock In Its Walls," the big-screen adaptation of John Bellair's 1973 novel of the same name. Starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro as our young protagonist, the film might be most notable for having its director -- Eli Roth, best known for very bloody and hard R-rated offerings such as "Cabin Fever," the first two "Hostel" films, "The Green Inferno" and the recent remake of "Death Wish" -- dip his cinematic toes in PG-rated material for the first time.

While I welcome these sorts of filmmakers into such calmer territory as it usually forces them to be more creative with the material (something I wish Quentin Tarantino would attempt), the overall result here is sort of "meh." And much of that's because the screenplay adaptation of Bellair's work by scribe Eric Kripke meanders for too long while coming off a bit too much like "Harry Potter" lite before finally settling into its fairly rote and fairly boring, "save the world from an evil villain" plot thrust.

Vaccaro plays 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt, a kid who wears large goggles atop his head to emulate his favorite TV superhero character. That, along with his size and meek demeanor, means he's always picked last for his school's sports activities. That continues when he's forced to move to New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his uncle (Black, toning it down a bit from his usual antic shtick but not all of the way) after his parents are killed in a car accident.

Those two bits would certainly seem to be good reasons for the boy to want to learn magic once he discovers that his uncle is a warlock and the next-door neighbor (Blanchett) is a friendly witch. But before he gets to either point (that oddly never materialize), he must contend with trying to sleep in what has to be a haunted house. That's not only due to things that definitely go bump in the night, but also what the lone kid at school (Sunny Suljic) who befriends him says. And that is that the place is known as the slaughter house and that ax murders took place there.

So, yeah, there's some dark material here and Roth leans heavily on some of his former horror tricks -- while keeping them in PG territory -- mixing scares with the more lighthearted material (such as a chair that acts as if it's the pet dog). That continues when our young hero decides to use his new magic to impress his new friend and raise the dead.

Unfortunately for him (and the movie), that unleashes the former occupant of the house (Kyle MacLachlan) from his grave, reunites him with his wife (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and the two set out to pick up where they left off in terms of wiping out all of humanity. That stems from his time back in the war when he encountered and accepted evil into his life and...well, who really cares?

Much of the third act related to all of that and finding the titular object related to such potential destruction ultimately lacks the gravitas, emotional involvement or, yes, figurative magic to make us give two hoots. Granted, young kids getting their first taste and encounter with scary movie material might think otherwise, but if you compare this to something like "Potter" (for the magic and all things related to that) or "Poltergeist" (for the haunted house scares), it comes up far short.

To be fair, it's nowhere near a travesty, but its early meandering and flat nature, third act danger that goes too big in scope when it should have remained much smaller, and overall missed opportunity of being far more creative and imaginative than it ultimately is, means it could have used some more magic to make it better than it is. "The House With a Clock In Its Walls" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 18, 2018 / Posted September 21, 2018

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