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House with a Clock in Its Walls, The

Universal // PG // December 18, 2018
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted December 31, 2018 | E-mail the Author

In 10 Words or Less

Cate Blanchett is a witch

Reviewer's Bias*

Loves: Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, great classic children's books
Likes: Jack Black, Family-friendly adventures
Dislikes: mean kids, potty humor
Hates: Not having read the book as a kid

The Movie

The idea of a family-friendly adventure film produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment being directed by torture-porn auteur Eli Roth is just remarkably odd. Look at Roth's recent filmography: the cannibal nightmare of The Green Inferno, the dark Knock Knock, the unnecessary right-wing fantasy remake of Death Wish and then The House with a Clock in its Walls. Now, as someone who never read John Bellairs' youth novel upon which the film is based, I thought it made a lot of sense for Roth to make what sounded like an Italian giallo film (remembering Lucio Fulci's The House of Clocks.) But this film is very much a film in the vein of ‘80s kids adventure films like The Flight of the Navigator, and Roth shows himself to be quite capable of creating a movie free of soul-rending horror.

Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) recently lost his parents, and he is off to live with his unusual uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). The distant relative lives in a weird old house, often accompanied by his frenemy Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett.) Lewis quickly comes to find the house, Jonathan and Florence aren't what they seem, and magic is everywhere around him, as he learns that Jonathan is a warlock and Florence is a witch. But when Lewis' mother (frequent Roth collaborator and ex-wife Lorenza Izzo) pays a spectral visit, he has is told he has reason to be concerned, and his own inexperience with magic leads him to create big trouble for Jonathan and Florence, who are busy trying to figure out why an unseen clock in the house is counting down for some unknown reason.

Black is being the Black you either love or hate, the Black that we've seen in a number of films at this point (not the more interesting, unique roles he plays in films like The Polka King or Bernie.) That's fine for this part, as he's something of a manchild (literally at one point), albeit a manchild with responsibilities and magical abilities, who is called on to potentially save the world. You either buy in, or you're not going to enjoy his performance. Blanchett, on the other hand, is money in the bank. You could pick her character up and drop her directly into the Harry Potter franchise and no one would bat an eye. Scratch that: she would likely become the most popular character in the entirety of Hogwarts. Tough, funny and an utter screen presence, she is everything you want in a magical heroine and she dominates every scene she's in (no matter how much Black attempts to take over with his patented schtick.)

But as this is the story of Lewis, and his adventures in a new world of magic are the core of the film. They needed a strong child actor to take the lead, and Vaccaro isn't half bad. He's not given anything to do that you haven't seen a dozen times at this point, as he plays the book-smart outsider who struggles to make friends but shows an aptitude for something special that ultimately sets him apart and earns the respect of at least some of his peers. But this isn't Wonder and Vaccaro isn't Jacob Tremblay (an admittedly high child-actor bar to clear.) He does manage to not get blown off the screen opposite the boisterous Black though, which has to count for something. Unfortunately, when he's in scenes with other children it never feels quite right, and the further edges of the emotional spectrum he needs to hit don't seem to come naturally here.

There are a lot of fantasy elements to help distract in this film, including living topiaries, a pet-like armchair and sentient windows, not to mention an army of creepy automatons and attacking Jack O'Lanterns, but when they are trying to spackle over unneeded scatological humor and a subplot involving the coolest kid in school that exists solely to introduce a plot device, it's hard to hide the sin, even if Kyle MacLachlan is on-hand to help. Part of that is because the main plot, which feels like it gets shotgun-blasted at the viewer a bit late in the game, doesn't live up to all the spectacle the film has been building. It's a shame, because it feels like there's a lot of fun to be had between the funhouse magic and the period aesthetic of small-town Americana, but it all falls by the wayside for another poop gag.

The Discs

Universal has released The House with a Clock in its Walls in a two-disc set (one Blu-Ray, one DVD), which is packed in a standard-width Blu-ray keepcase, held in a foil-embossed slipcover. The Blu-ray features a static version of Universal's usual curve menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the extras. Audio options include English Dolby Atmos, French and English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 tracks and an English Descriptive Audio track, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish.

The Quality

Presented with a 1080p, AVC-encoded 2.39:1 transfer, The House with a Clock in its Walls looks fantastic on Blu-ray, ensuring the look of the time period, the special effects, the costuming and the incredible production design all get the treatment they deserve in the translation to home video. Fine detail is quite high, showing off the intricacies of the house itself, which features a few different color palettes across its spaces, from the deep hues of the parlor to the cold of Lewis' bedroom at night to the more naturalistic backyard. This film is a visual feast (Blanchett's outfits alone are worth the price of admission) and there are no obvious concerns when it comes to the transition to digital. Darker scenes remain quite legible, and action is free of any notable breakups.

Great to see a fantasy action film get a Dolby Atmos mix on Blu-ray, as you get placed directly in the middle of all the magic, adding greatly to the experience, while not taking away from the dialogue, which is crisp and clear, mainly living in the center channel, with a new moments of discrete placement tied to positioning on-screen. There are several moments where action is filling out the location, and the surrounds, including the overhead channels, help establish that feel by enveloping the viewer in audio, with nice panning effects an positioning, not to mention effective atmospheric effects. The low-end helps fill out some of the more energetic moments by providing weight and punch to the mix.

The Extras

The big extra is a commentary track featuring Roth and Black, who seem to be having a grand time chatting while watching the film, touching on plenty of production details, from the old-school production credits to Easter eggs in the background to working with kids, with tangents into topics like preparing to tour as Tenacious D and the physical-media market (addressing you, the reader, directly.) Roth shares influences on the film, from Tim Burton to Stunt Rock, and Black chimes in with shooting memories and observations, making for an entertaining and informative track.

There are alternate opening and ending scenes to check out, which you can watch with optional commentary by Roth and Black, who discuss why they weren't used. The opening (4:08) was repurposed--in a way--later in the film, but here it introduces a character far earlier and dives right into the plot, giving the movie a distinctly different feel. The ending (1:24) adds a very minor "comedic" moment to the coda, and is hardly necessary (it's almost embarrassing for Blanchett that it exists.)

Roth and Black (along with a bag of chips) are back for more, offering optional commentary on a set of nine deleted or extended scenes (running 9:20 in all.) Included in this group is more of Lewis' training, some slightly altered moments, a scene done in a different setting and a few more bits and bobs. Roth has more to say about these cuts than Black, explaining the purpose of the scenes and why they ultimately didn't make it into the movie.

A 3:33 gag reel covers the usual bases, including flubs, dancing and prop malfunctions, but it is a must-see for Blanchett's screw-ups (because the idea of Blanchett not being perfect hardly seems believable.) And are you shocked that Roth made his way into this? No, no you aren't.

"Warlocks and Witches" (9:58) is a four-part featurette about the film's core cast, through excessively effect-enhanced set footage and interviews with Roth and all of the main players. It's loaded with the expected apple polishing, but the behind-the-scenes material (including MacLachlan's make-up applications) is fun, Vaccaro is surprisingly more endearing as himself than he is on-screen and Blanchett seems like an absolute doll.

The five-part, 9:53 "Movie Magic" focuses on the big effects pieces in the film. Roth leads a tour of the house set, getting into all the details of the production work, while set footage shows how the other big moments were achieved, including the incredibly disturbing animatronic Jack Black, for which awards are deserved. For effects-heads, it's a neat peek behind the curtain.

The brief "Tick Tock: Bringing the Book to Life" (3:27) talks about the Bellairs book the film adapts, and how it inspired the creators, as well as how it fits in with Amblin's legacy of adventure films.

"Eli Roth: Director's Journals" is a six-part, 7:23 set of promos that naturally focuses on Roth, as he discusses the shooting of the film, with behind-the-scenes footage showing how shots were created (including the chair) and, of course, the shooting of his cameo in the movie. Even if you don't like Roth (he rubs plenty of people the wrong way), he comes off well in these clips.

The 4:11 "Owen Goes Behind the Scenes" is a four-part shaky-cam exploration of the set by the movie's star, as he runs around with a GoPro and his fellow child actors, and goes about his day--including schoolwork--and interviews cast and support staff. It's cute, but the shakiness is sickening.

"Theme Song Challenge" (2:48) with Roth, Black, Vaccaro, Izzo and MacLachlan, has the group riffing on a potential theme for the film. Naturally, the Tenacious D star takes the lead as they goof around, but don't expect music magic. It's enjoyable to see them have fun this way though.

"Do You Know Jack Black?" (4:01) is amusing game show in which Black quizzes Vaccaro, MacLachlan and Izzo about his own life, and the questions are actually surprisingly difficult. It's followed by the very short "Abracadabra" (1:06), in which Roth does a card trick with Vaccaro.

Need to know more about Jack Black? "Jack Black's Greatest Fear" (1:27) has you covered, as Roth and Vaccaro pull an unusual on-set prank on him, while "The Mighty Wurlitzer" (2:26) features composer Nathan Barr. who discusses the historic instrument he has spent years restoring. A feature-length exploration of this incredible creation would be well-worth watching.

In the package is a code for a MoviesAnywhere copy of the film.

The Bottom Line

While The House with a Clock in its Walls isn't likely to go down in cinematic history as a children's classic, it's an enjoyable movie, and for kids it could very well be one of those movies they remember fondly later in life, ala ‘80s kids and The Goonies. For everyone else, it's a chance to bask in the wonder that is Cate Blanchett. Universal has the delivered the film in excellent shape, with a wealth of extras, both interesting and fluffy, making it a disc you can really dive into, especially if you missed it during its theatrical run. Either way, Cate Blanchett plays a witch and she's great.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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