Solid acting by its stars, spirited animation, and a fast-paced (if somewhat predictable) plot make “The House with a Clock in its Walls” an entertaining film, despite its flaws. Director Eli Roth, known for his adult horror movies (e.g. “Cabin Fever” 2002), aims for both youth and adult audience appeal, but doesn’t quite hit either target.
Based on a novel by John Bellairs, who specialized in young adult gothic fiction, the story features 12-year-old Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, the orphan prodigy sent to live with his crazy uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt, played by a manic Jack Black (“High Fidelity,” 2000). The uncle and his neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett in a low-affect comic role), operate as warlock and witch. Young Lewis learns the trade and saves the day. Who would have guessed?
A brief shot of a tattooed number on Florence’s arm reveals, at least to adults, that this story has a Holocaust lineage. Even the villain seems to have sprung from good intentions – to eliminate war. The use of ghastly World War II images seems particularly inappropriate in a family film. “The House with a Clock in its Walls” has been called a horror trainer film. That’s apt.