By B.A. Walsh
A House with A Clock in Its Walls is a story about finding family and embracing the things that make us different – because sometimes our little oddities can make us truly special. As one of the characters would say, it is the nuts that make the recipe.
The movie is set in the 1950s, an era we often view with nostalgia as a simpler time (even if we never actually lived then plenty of old-time TV shows and movies have made us feel as if we did). But although these seem to be brighter days the effects of World War II still cast a shadow over some of the characters.
The film opens as the recently orphaned Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), whose parents were killed in a car accident, goes to live with the uncle he has never met. When Lewis first meets Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) the man is wearing an embroidered kimono, which is our first indication that Uncle Jonathan is a bit outside the ordinary. Jack Black plays Uncle Jonathan with a smirk and a roguish twinkle in his eye and his less serious antics provide energy to the first part of the movie, which involves the slow setup for the dramatic events that will occur later. We also meet Uncle Jonathan’s neighbor Florence Zimmerman, played by Cate Blanchett with a regal and austere attitude but a bit of a mischievous glint in her eye. Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman argue and insult each other constantly – like an old married couple or a pair of rowdy siblings – like family.
Lewis’ new guardian seems fairly laid back in terms of discipline. He sees no problem with cookies for dinner and has only one rule: do not open the locked cabinet in the study (three guesses if that one rule is broken sometime during the movie). Uncle Jonathan’s house is also out of the ordinary – full of clocks and strange curios but sadly no television. Having a bedroom adorned with depictions of the moon in various stages and filled with oddities may be interesting in daylight hours but is not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep; finding his Uncle prowling the house in the middle of the night and acting oddly doesn’t help. It becomes apparent to Lewis that Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are hiding something. Fortunately for Lewis, he discovers that the secret isn’t as he feared: his Uncle Jonathan is a warlock not an axe murderer and the house is magic not haunted. A bit of pleading and Lewis starts learning magic like a home-schooled Harry Potter. He can have his room clean itself, interact with the animated furniture, and watch his favorite Captain Midnight TV show on an enchanted mirror.
Lewis himself is a bit of an odd duck vaguely reminiscent of the character in Young Sheldon. Lewis loves words and dictionaries instead of sports (perhaps because of his lack of athletic ability) and wears sweater vests and bowties as well as his Captain Midnight goggles. Needless to say, he is not very popular with his new schoolmates. Lewis does manage to make one friend, but when that friend starts to pull away Lewis is desperate to keep his attention and so tries to impress the other boy with his magic. This leads to Lewis breaking his Uncle Jonathan’s one rule and casting a spell to wake the dead that should have been obvious as a BAD IDEA. (Seriously, all the other magic he has learned and THIS is the spell he wants to show his friend?)
Things begin to change after the spell is cast and the house takes on a more sinister vibe. Lewis discovers that the house used to belong to Uncle Jonathan’s partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who returned from World War II a changed man who dabbled in evil blood magic. He and his wife constructed a doomsday clock in the house, and now events have been set in motion for the clock to finally count down. Our trio of heroes must find the strength within themselves to confront Izard and his wife and stop their evil plan in the dramatic last act with literally the fate of the world and all mankind at stake.
I found the movie very enjoyable. While the film has some elements of suspense and creepiness overall the tone is rather light, especially when Uncle Jonathan is onscreen. It moved along in the opening acts at a slow but steady pace, alternating scenes of spooky foreboding and comic relief as Lewis settles in to his new home. The pace picks up for the climactic confrontation scenes at the finale. Our three main characters showed good development throughout the film: fish-out-of-water Lewis who finds a place, amusing but insecure Uncle Jonathan who stops running, and stoic but wounded Mrs. Zimmerman who finds healing. The trio come together despite their flaws, rather embracing their oddities, and form a new family. The movie had interesting set design in the house, and special effects for the magic scenes that are visually striking without being too flashy or over-the-top.
Overall 4 out of 5.