Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro
Director: Eli Roth
Screenplay: Eric Kripke, John Bellairs
Comedy/Family/Fantasy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett team up for a Harry Potter wannabe. Are you game?
I’m not only game, I’ve been climbing the walls to review this flick. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) – he’s an orphan living in 1955. His parents were killed in a car crash and he has been shipped off to his uncle’s house. Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) is an eccentric who lives in a gothic mansion and claims he’s a warlock. Uncle Jonathan’s best friend is the purple-clad next-door neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Uncle Jonathan has very few rules. In fact, there is only one – don’t open the cabinet in the library. Lewis goes to school and befriends Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic). It isn’t long before Lewis starts learning the craft of wizardry – which he uses to impress his new friend.
Alas, it turns out that Tarby only befriended Lewis to help Tarby win a student election at school. To gain back Tarby’s friendship, Lewis invites Tarby over to Jonathan’s strange house. Tarby immediately gravitates to the forbidden cabinet and pressures Lewis to open it. Inside is a book about the practice of necromancy and bringing the dead back to life. Soon the two boys are in the cemetery where Jonathan’s former partner and powerful wizard Isaac is buried. They bring Isaac back to life and mayhem ensues.
Scott, I opened this review calling The House With a Clock in its Walls a “Harry Potter wannabe.” But, in fact, this film is based on the book of the same name published in 1973 – so it actually predates the Harry Potter franchise.
But it has all the elements that made Harry Potter popular: an orphaned boy wizard who pines for his parents to come home, an eccentric wizard mentor, and a need to feel accepted among new friends. Not to mention the magical world of a house with animated furniture, pictures that change depending on the house’s emotions, and clocks… oh so many clocks.
Veterans Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are just wonderful in their roles as best friends and neighbors who feign dislike for each other, but clearly share a warm affection. Black typically plays over-the-top fringe characters, but in this case his performance hits the mark of being distinct, caring, and a little off-center. Likewise, Blanchett as Mr.s Zimmerman brings grace and dignity to her role and is an entertaining contract to Black’s controlled zaniness.
I’m reminded of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Both stories are set in post-World-War-II and both reference the war as an important part of the plot. This sets the stage for a film that is darker than the original Harry Potter film. While it isn’t spelled out, Mrs. Zimmerman is a holocaust survivor, and lost her husband and child to the Nazis in a concentration camp. Also, Uncle Jonathan ran away from home leaving his sister behind with abusive parents. All three of the main characters have lost their families. And in the end, they come together to create a blended family constructed from the shards of their broken lives.
Greg, A House on a Wall with a Clock is a perfect movie for kids with an adventurous spirit and a penchant for magic and witchcraft. As for adults, I’m not so sure this film offers much in the way of story, enchantment, or surprises. But nerdy kids 10 to 12 years of age may truly identify with our hero Lewis along with his large vocabulary and his rotten athletic skills. And yes, like you, I saw many parallels between this film and Harry Potter. All the ingredients for a coming-of-age hero’s journey are set in place, with Jack Black’s presence giving some added spice.
We’ve said here many times that all good heroes are missing an important inner quality at the outset of their journeys. Lewis is a likeable, resourceful kid who loves the indomitable spirit of his favorite fictional hero, but he appears to be lacking it himself. His hero’s journey requires him to obtain his indomitability, and just as importantly, he also helps Florence acquire this quality. There are two transformations that characterize the hero’s journey – the personal transformation of the hero, and the hero’s transformation of others. We discuss these two types of transformations in our 2015 Reel Heroes & Villains book.
The House With a Clock in its Walls is a wonderful Halloween offering that I believe will become a classic. While darker than others in the genre, I think the theme of wanting to belong is universal. All three of the main characters are in some way outcasts and loners. And together they fulfill their inner need to belong. I give The House With a Clock in its Walls 4 out of 5 Reels.
Young Lewis is a classic boy hero – he’s orphaned, vulnerable, honest, and has a special competency (his knowledge of words). He also has a missing inner quality of needing a family. He comes full circle from being alone, to finding a home and solves a perilous, high-stakes problem along the way. I give Lewis 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The archetypes are strong and enjoyable. There’s the MENTOR in Uncle Jonathan. The NOSY NEIGHBOR in Mrs. Hanchett, and the BEST FRIEND in Tarby. I give this film 4 out of 5 Arcs.
A House on a Wall with a Clock is good clean fun, which may sound odd given that not many stories about demons and necromancy qualify and “good” and “clean”. But what’s not to like about a young frightened boy overcoming his demons (pardon the pun) and growing into a brave, resourceful hero? As a kids’ movie, this film earns 4 Reels out of 5 but I think most adults will be bored by the film. When averaging the 2 Reels that adults would give it with the 4 that kids should give it, I arrive at a final rating of 3 Reels out of 5.
I have to admit that A House on a Wall with a Clock features a wonderful hero’s story regardless of whether you are a kid or an adult watching it. Lewis is hurled into the dangerous world of Jonathan’s enchanted house and must acquire courage, resilience, and resourcefulness to become transformed into a hero. He encounters villains, receives help from strange magic furniture, acquires a family, and grows up big-time. Lewis deserves 4 Heroes out of 5.
There are some wonderful archetypes in this film, such as the wizard, the good witch, the demonic spirit, the orphan child, the crazy uncle, the nosy neighbor, and the school bully. I give these archetypes 4 Arc points out of 5.