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‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’ ticks all the boxes

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I’m not sure when exactly “family-friendly” became code for “condescending and/or milquetoast,” but that’s pretty much where we are as far as Hollywood is concerned. The truth is that there are plenty of ways to make a movie for younger audiences that engages with them in a manner that treats them with respect – folks like Steven Spielberg did it all the time in the 1980s.

So when word of “The House with a Clock in its Walls” came out, I was cautiously optimistic. The original source material – a 1973 YA magic mystery by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey that was the first of a dozen in the series – had the requisite spookiness. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company is prominently involved. The cast – led by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett – is strong.

But there were questions – and the biggest involved the man sitting in the director’s chair. Eli Roth built his career on brutal, bloody genre fare – the choice to hand what is essentially a movie for kids over to the dude who made “Hostel” is an odd one. It seemed like a jarring, unconventional marriage unlikely to succeed.

Instead, it turned out to be an ideal pairing, with Roth bringing his visceral sensibility to the PG-realm with nary a hiccup, resulting in a children’s movie that isn’t afraid to spend some time in the shadows and bring genuine scares to the screen.

In the year 1955, a 10-year-old boy named Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, “Daddy’s Home 2”) is forced to move to a new town after the death of his parents. He arrives in New Zebedee, Michigan, where he is taken in by his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), a local eccentric who lives in a spooky old house on the outskirts of town.

It turns out that Jonathan is a warlock – albeit a not-particularly-talented one – while his neighbor and best friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, “Ocean’s 8”) is a much more powerful magician. With Jonathan’s blessing, Lewis starts to study the arcane arts.

Meanwhile, at school, Lewis is struggling to fit in. He starts to make friends with a classmate named Tarby (Sunny Siljic, “Summer of 17”), but that relationship soon sours. Desperate to keep Tarby’s attention, Lewis offers to dabble in some dark magic – necromancy – to impress his skeptical friend.

That goes about as well as you might expect.

The resurrected individual happens to be Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, TV’s “Twin Peaks”), an evil wizard who once lived in Jonathan’s house – and was once his partner. Years ago, Izard built a magic clock buried somewhere within the walls of the house, and while Jonathan doesn’t know precisely where it is or what it will do, he knows that his former friend created it for nefarious purposes.

It’s up to Lewis, Jonathan and Florence to do whatever it takes to thwart the evil schemes of Izard and save not just themselves, but maybe even the whole world.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is a throwback to the days when movies aimed at kids actually treated their audiences with a modicum of respect. It’s a wonderful story, engaging with the viewer without condescension. With Roth’s undeniable visual flair – as well as his well-documented fascination with the shadows - thrown into the mix, the end result is a movie that offers real thrills and scares and a sense of consequences that you rarely see in kiddie fare. Roth’s contributions cannot be overstated – I’m honestly stunned that he was able to fit his own aesthetic so neatly into this sort of framework, but he absolutely makes it happen.

The quality of the cast certainly doesn’t hurt. Black is in his element as Uncle Jonathan; his energy is a magnificent fit for this sort of movie. He reins in his manic tendencies while still letting his weirdness bleed out around the edges. Blanchett is the sober yang to Black’s raging yin, a pinnacle of order helping ground Black’s chaos. She also elicits a deep sadness throughout, most notably in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment addressing staggering loss. Vaccaro gives a solid performance as Lewis; while he has occasional spots where he struggles, for the most part, he does a fine job as the fulcrum on which the film balances. MacLachlan chews his way through his scenes in a most delightful way. Good supporting turns from Siljic, Renee Elise Goldsberry and especially Colleen Camp fill out the rest of the ensemble.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is a throwback to the kids’ movies that I watched when I was a kid myself, movies that weren’t afraid to be a little complicated and a little challenging. It’s unlikely that it will have the long-term resonance of some of those mid-1980s classics, but it’s got a better shot at it than 99 percent of the children’s fare currently out there. It’s a smart movie that respects the intelligence of its audience, filled with good gags, strong performances … and a few scares. All in all, a great time at the movies.

[4.5 out of 5]

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