PLOT An orphaned boy in his uncle’s care discovers a world of witchcraft.
CAST Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro
RATED PG (scares and creepy imagery)
BOTTOM LINE A strained attempt at kid-friendly fantasy.
It isn’t difficult to find children’s movies with a passable level of charm, whimsy, even a sense of wonder. The great ones, though, have magic. “Mary Poppins” had it; so did the “Harry Potter” series. It’s hard to say where that magic comes from, but when it’s missing, you know it.
“The House With a Clock in Its Walls” doesn’t have it. The movie does have Jack Black, whose mischievous eyebrows and general jollitude have made him a kiddie-fare favorite for years (his great turn in the latest “Jumanji” film shows why), and it also has Cate Blanchett, an always-dazzling presence who has been dabbling in sorcery and fantasy at least since her turn as Galadriel in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. They make a halfway-decent pair, too, as a warlock and witch whose sniping but affectionate relationship almost recalls a wizardly Nick and Nora Charles.
The movie also has a young hero, Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a precocious misfit who loses his parents in a car crash and moves to the small town of New Zebedee, Michigan, to live with his uncle, Jonathan (Black). He’s an oddball who wears a kimono and plays free-jazz sax, but even odder is his house, a dilapidated mansion in which every piece of old furniture and creepy decoration — from chairs to mannequins to stained-glass windows — is alive. And yes, it has an audible clock somewhere inside, planted by the evil magician Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who supposedly died years ago. As the plot thickens, next-door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchette) provides a cool head to balance out Jonathan’s wild-man instincts.
Written by Eric Kripke from John Bellairs’ book (illustrated by Edward Gorey), “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” is a self-consciously dark children’s movie along the lines of “Matilda” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Director Eli Roth, best known for splattery horror films like “Hostel,” tries to adopt a Burtonesque tone but can’t quite nail it. The house is creepy and creaky but doesn’t have much personality; ditto for such creatures as Jonathan’s dog-like armchair (where’s its face?) and the topiary griffin whose poop comes out as leaves. Despite its special effects and two proven stars, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” never manages to create the magic we keep hoping will materialize. It’s a thing that can’t be faked.