The cogs never quite fit together in 'The House with a Clock in Its Walls'

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

Witches are so 2017. Make way for warlocks, aka "boy witches," as defined by the intrepid young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), the boy hero of "The House with a Clock in Its Walls." The adaptation of John Bellairs' 1973 young adult fantasy novel, directed by Eli Roth and written by Eric Kripke, makes a play to move in on the young warlock turf vacated by Harry Potter, but the film just can't quite keep time as a proper young adult fantasy adventure.

The story, which takes place in 1955, follows Lewis as he travels to New Zebedee, Michigan, to live with his uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), after the tragic death of his parents. The film has a vintage steampunk aesthetic, with Lewis outfitted in tweeds and a ubiquitous pair of goggles. He fits right in to his uncle's creaking, groaning, ticking house of wonders, where there are no rules, plentiful chocolate chip cookies and lots of mysterious goings-on, courtesy of Jonathan and his neighbor, Mrs. Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).

From left,  Jack Black, Owen Vaccaro and Cate Blanchett star in "The House With A Clock in Its Walls."  The movie opens Sept. 21 at Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13, Regal West Manchester Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

It's not so easy to fit in with the kids at school, though Lewis does make one friend in the cool-kid greaser Tarby (Sunny Suljic). But if Lewis is going to learn anything from his impressively bearded and kooky uncle, it's to embrace the weird — it's the only way to be a warlock. Lewis is soon receiving lessons in magic from his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman, a combination of old-school vaudeville magician tricks and real, mystical conjuring of the ethereal fantastic.

Despite all the rich elements — the fantastic cast, the wonderfully detailed production and costume design, an oddball family story of black sheep finding each other — there's something missing from "The House with a Clock in Its Walls." It's weightless, hop-skipping over necessary story-building, glossing over Lewis' warlock training as well as the personal histories of his guardians.

It's all style, no heft, and there's little personal connection to the characters. Piles of exposition pour out of characters' mouths via speeches and monologues, rather than organically throughout the script. There's a layer of artifice that never quite evaporates, never allows us to fall headlong into this world.

From left, Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett star in "The House With A Clock in Its Walls." The movie opens Sept. 21 at Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13, Regal West Manchester Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

The film can serve as a gateway for goth children, who may be drawn to spooky and macabre things but without too much blood, guts or real scares. The climax, in which Lewis, Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman battle Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a warlock risen from the dead, is breathless, hysterical and goopy, but never all that terrifying. He and his wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry), want to turn back the world clock housed in the walls of the house and essentially "Eternal Sunshine" all people off the planet.

The film, with its 1955 setting, gestures at the trauma of "the war" for the reasons why good warlocks turn bad or strong witches become weak. "No people, no war," Isaac says. No character embodies that more than Mrs. Zimmerman, and every moment Cate Blanchett is on screen is a small saving grace. Her one-on-one scene with Lewis is far more gripping than anything else in the film, which unfortunately drags. Blanchett makes "The House with a Clock in Its Walls" tick, but the cogs never quite fit together as snugly as they should.

2 stars
Cast: Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic.
Directed by Eli Roth.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language.