‘House With a Clock’ is a real time drain

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - BY MARK KENNEDY THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The 10-year-old hero at the cen­ter of the film “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” likes to look up words in the dic­tio­nary, like “fore­bod­ing” and “in­domitable.” He might want to be fa­mil­iar with the term “ex­e­crable” — that’s a good one for this movie.

Adapted from the 1973 John Bel­lairs young adult su­per­nat­u­ral thriller, the film some­how man­ages its own witch­craft in find­ing the per­fect un-sweet spot — it’s too scary for lit­tle kids, not scary enough for older ones, not funny or clever enough for their par­ents, and too re­dun­dant for ev­ery­one. Poof! Watch the au­di­ence dis­ap­pear.

Hor­ror spe­cial­ist di­rec­tor Eli Roth has stum­bled badly as he en­ters the dan­ger­ous realm of whim­si­cal, which is added here at such high doses as to be lethal. The film is os­ten­si­bly a Harry Pot­ter-lite com­ing of age yarn, but the real spooky thing is why Cate Blanchett and Jack Black de­cided to tag along.

The story — by Eric Kripke, cre­ator of TV’s “Su­per­nat­u­ral” — cen­ters on a re­cently or­phaned 10-year-old boy named Lewis in 1955. He moves to a Michi­gan town to live with his mys­te­ri­ous, choco­late-lov­ing un­cle, played by Black, who turns out to be a war­lock. The next-door neigh­bor, Florence Zim­mer­mann, is an el­e­gant, pur­ple-lov­ing witch played by Blanchett.

“You’ll see. Things are quite dif­fer­ent here,” Black’s char­ac­ter says to the as­ton­ished boy. But he’s ly­ing — things are very fa­mil­iar here: foggy grave­yards, creepy dolls, dusty books, an­i­mal skele­tons in small carved boxes, or­nately carved book jack­ets, se­cret rooms be­hind book­cases, thump­ing in the walls and even comedic non-hu­man side­kicks (this time an arm­chair and a top­i­ary grif­fin).

There’s been an ob­vi­ous at­tempt to ape the chilly men­ace of Ed­ward Gorey, who sup­plied im­ages for Bel­lairs’ book, but this movie re­ally just leans on props and sug­ges­tive mu­sic, never find­ing a con­sis­tent tone or vi­sion. Some­times it feels like a Wes An­der­son film, at oth­ers it goes more like Wes Craven.

Young Lewis, up­tight, pre­co­cious — and out­fit­ted in the lazi­est way to show that, with a pair of WWI-era avi­a­tor gog­gles and a bow tie — must learn to be a war­lock him­self, fit in at school, solve the mys­tery of the hid­den clock and save the uni­verse. Child ac­tor Owen Vac­caro does ad­mirably here. It’s the adults who have let him down.

Fore­most among them is Black and Blanchett, who are in dif­fer­ent movies — he’s in a comic farce com­plete with butt jokes and vom­it­ing pump­kins, and she’s do­ing some very se­ri­ous English draw­ing-room drama. “It’s the nuts that make things in­ter­est­ing,” she says at one point. “I’ve found that all one re­ally needs in this world is one good friend,” she tells Lewis primly.To­ward the end, Blanchett arms her­self with a weapon re­sem­bling an um­brella, be­com­ing a sort of Os­car-win­ning Mary Pop­pins as she mows down en­e­mies with what seem to be bolts of light­ning. What hap­pens to Black? Would you be­lieve a truly dis­turb­ing se­quence with his bearded adult face on top of a baby body? (There’s an image we’ll all take to the grave.)

This whole mess drags it­self to a messy con­clu­sion — wait, is that Kyle MacLach­lan mak­ing an ap­pear­ance late on? Kyle? Did you lose a bet, too? — and then it all ends on an im­pos­si­bly sticky, sweet big kiss of a fi­nale that un­der­mines the en­tire project.

Fit­tingly, the clos­ing cred­its evoke the goofy hu­mor of a com­pletely dif­fer­ent an­i­ma­tor — Charles Ad­dams. (Look for jokey cred­its for the sofa and the grif­fin if you’re one of the rare peo­ple stick­ing around.) Noth­ing makes a lot of sense in “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” ex­cept per­haps when Black’s char­ac­ter warns: “This is no place for a kid.”

AP PHOTO/ QUANTRELL D. COL­BERT/ UNI­VER­SAL PIC­TURES

Jack Black, from left, Owen Vac­caro and Cate Blanchett in a scene from “The House With A Clock in Its Walls.”

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