Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a lonely orphan, goes to live with his eccentric uncle (Jack Black) in an old house whose walls seem to be ticking.
One of the pitfalls of adapting works for the big screen is attempting to strike the right balance between staying true to the source material and creating a work that is truly cinematic. The House with a Clock in its Walls has a permeating sense of trying very hard to stay close to the 70’s novel by John Bellairs, but doing so to its detriment.
Take the kitschy Victoriana goggles Lewis wears, for example; he wears them as an homage to his favourite TV show. However this point feels thrown in whenever it’s referenced, and ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. It comes across as an in-joke that the audience isn’t in on, and an attempt at characterisation which serves only to keep Lewis utterly two-dimensional. His entire character revolves around the goggles, a bowtie, and a love of reading the dictionary; an oft-used trope as a lazy shorthand for intelligence. There is no underlying substance behind these quirks. The goggles demonstrate a couple of the main issues with this film; firstly, they are entirely in-keeping with the “quaint 1950s” aesthetic with which the film beats you over the head with in such a way that it feels jarring; and secondly, they are a plot thread which is inconsistently woven through the narrative before being unceremoniously dropped.
The film spends an inordinate amount of time following Lewis at school as he attempts to make friends, grinding the plot to a halt with poor dialogue and serving no discernable narrative purpose. None of the child actors give particularly convincing performances either, although it comes across as more of a directorial failing than a lack of ability on their part. There is a vain attempt to tug on the heartstrings in scenes reminding us that Lewis has just lost his parents, but Vaccaro’s stage-school performance isn’t up to the challenge.
The film runs out of steam around two-thirds of the way through, and it’s a slog to get to the end. The plot – which had, up to that point, been a shaky house of cards that held together as long as you didn’t think too hard – begins to unravel, ultimately dragging itself into a CGI clockwork climax which falls flat. The House with a Clock in Its Walls felt as though it was just trying too hard; particularly with the overbearing and underwhelming score, lacklustre child actors, and TV-standard special effects. It was attempting a Halloween-y whimsy that it didn’t ultimately deliver, although watching Cate Blanchett and Jack Black try to upstage each other in each scene they shared just about made it bearable. They clearly had at least some fun with it – and I’m glad they did, because I didn’t.
A few cogs short of clockwork: 1 star
Image Credit: Movie DB.