Jack Black Cate Blanchett Owen Vaccaro
Kyle MacLachlan Renee Elise Goldsberry Sunny Suljic
In 1955, in an old mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan, strange and eerie things are going to happen. Ten year-old Lewis (Vaccaro) is going to be moving in with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents were killed in a car accident, and he has no idea his uncle is a warlock. The house is sumptuous with a large bedroom for him—impressive!--But he will soon learn that things go bump—or something else—in the night. He is alarmed at times, but he is a brave child, and even goes to investigate at times with his flashlight.
Then, Lewis is alarmed one night to see his uncle hacking into the wall with an axe, and even though his uncle’s strange neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) urges Jonathan to reveal “secrets” to Lewis, that doesn’t happen. It’s a bit strange anyway to hear Mrs. Z and Jonathan exchange insults (hilarious name-calling), but not in anger, and they immediately get back to solving problems. Well, there is one big one that they have been wrestling with for ages.
Lewis is a bookish child (loves dictionaries and learning words like indomitable, which causes him to sound like an effete child) with silly goggles on his head, and even so while he comes across at school as a nerd, he is able to make a friend (at least temporarily). But this bookishness turns out to be just what he needs to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, something he sorely wishes for after Jonathan’s demonstration of magic in the garden when it comes alive in the most delightful way.
Reluctantly, Jonathan agrees to help Lewis become a warlock. There is just one rule in the house, which is not to open a certain cabinet. Lewis is an obedient child and he fully intends to comply, but neither he nor his uncle anticipate what might happen when Lewis invites his one friend, skeptical Tarby (Suljic), over to the house to impress him with what he’s learned about magic.
What follows is a major struggle that is exciting for children and adults to watch, and, gratifyingly for me, carrying positive messages. They will see children and adults persisting in the face of adversity, staying on the side of good, and seeing that children need to be informed about what is going on in their lives and, moreover, including them in solutions. Yes, children should be more respected.
Another positive piece of good modeling in the film is the egalitarian relationship between Jonathan and Mrs. Z. He openly acknowledges her value to him and the impressiveness of her skills. She is portrayed as skillful, motherly, and a wise sage. Jonathan is open both to her as a female and to Lewis as a child. He models for men the value of listening to women and children, and then being willing to make changes.
With the aid of screenwriter Eric Kripke, director Eli Roth has done a good job in adapting John Bellairs’ novel to the screen. Music (Nathan Barr), cinematography (Rogier Stoffers), and production design (John Hutman) are of similar quality. Jack Black nails every role he plays, as does Cate Blanchett, and their inclusion in any cast will elevate the film. Young Owen Vaccara pulls for attention, although I have to confess I kept wanting to see Jacob Tremblay (Room) in that role. Kyle MacLachlan and Renee Elise Goldsberry were wonderfully effective as villains.
House with a Clock is a bit silly at times—which is not unusual for this type of film—but general audiences will enjoy it; there was applause for it afterwards at the screening I attended. The special effects are good, but parents might note that it could be scary for young children who are afraid of the dark.
A good choice for those who like a mixture of fantasy, comedy, and a bit of horror.