J.K. Rowling has spoiled us for any other story involving magic — stories like “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” haunted-house tale for kids that gets by on silliness and the odd screen pairing of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.
Lewis Barnevelt (Owen Vaccaro, last seen in the “Daddy’s Home” movies) is a nerdy fourth-grader in 1955, recently relocated to a small town in Michigan after his parents’ death in a car crash. He is moving to live with his uncle, Jonathan (played by Black), in a creepy old house designed in early Addams Family. Jonathan soon reveals that he is a warlock, training himself in the art of magic. His next-door neighbor, Mrs. Florence Zimmerman (that’s Blanchett), is a witch, even more skilled in magic, and the two share a friendship disguised in traded insults.
Every night, Lewis observes, Jonathan sneaks around the house, seeking something making deep and terrifying noises through the house. Eventually, Jonathan reveals that he is searching for a clock hidden in the house’s walls by its former occupant, a powerful but evil warlock, Isaac Izard (played in flashbacks by Kyle MacLachlan). Isaac died, and presumably killed his witch wife Selina (“Hamilton’s” Renée Elise Goldsberry), while concocting a plan that could destroy the world — and it’s up to Jonathan and Florence, with some help from Lewis, to find it and stop it.
Lewis, though, is troubled. He has vivid dreams about his late mother (Lorenza Izzo). And he so wants to suck up to the school tough guy, Tarby (Sunny Suljic), that he breaks Jonathan’s only house rule, and removes a book of dark magic from a locked cabinet.
Director Eli Roth — and, yes, seeing the guy who made “Hostel” and the “Death Wish” remake helming a PG-rated movie is the weirdest thing since John Waters concocted “Hairspray” — creates a colorful array of gross-out magical effects, from the puking pumpkins guarding Jonathan’s house to the topiary griffin that farts dead leaves. He and screenwriter Eric Kripke (adapting John Bellairs’ 1973 novel) also have fun devising the sharp-elbowed banter between Jonathan and Florence.
Alas, the story itself is thin, and drawing it out to movie length allows for a lot of visual-effects padding. You’d think with all the clocks in this movie, placed by Jonathan to drown out the ticking of the one in the title, that somebody would make the movie go just a little faster.
‘The House With a Clock in Its Walls’
Opens Friday, Sept. 21, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language. Running time: 104 minutes.