Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) has faced a lot of upheaval recently, being a ten-year-old boy who has been orphaned after his parents died in a car crash. He must now go to live with his only living relative in the small town of New Zebedee, a place he is wary of as he is unfamiliar with it, and when his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) meets him at the bus, he is even more wary of the house he is supposed to be staying in. It is a Gothic townhouse, elaborately furnished and full of clocks for reasons Jonathan is reluctant to go into, preferring to put on a happy face and try to make Lewis's stay as fun as possible. But how fun can it be? Aside from the orphaning, there are rumours...
The House with the Clock in Its Walls was one of those films made from a successful young adult series of books that you would never have heard of if you had not read them as a kid, meaning it was a bit of a hard sell to the unconverted. As it was, this did okay at the box office, but short of a blockbuster, the originals spawning the typical "film wasn't the same as the book!" complaints from the real diehard fans. That was to be expected, but it was also true that if you had not encountered John Bellairs' novels, you would be hard pressed to work out what the big deal about them was if your only experience of them was this mildly diverting but wholly inessential movie.
You could, however, understand why it had been put into production. Two words: Harry Potter. Studios around the world were looking out for a substitute for the megahit boy wizard franchise, which had raked in the billions of dollars in book and film form, as well as all the lucrative spin-offs and memorabilia. It was a cash cow that was the envy of the family entertainment sphere, and the search had been on for a similarly money-generating property ever since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had made such a big splash internationally (though not necessarily under that title). Yet there was a problem with that: you really needed to have loved the books to love the films.
The Potter series, cinematically at least, were nothing special when it came to crafting the blockbuster as art, slavishly recreating bits and pieces from their sources for the fans to respond to, but failing to soar as great feats of imagination: J.K. Rowling's magic remained resolutely on the page, and any association with its ingenuity for the big screen was just that: an association. This meant that all the would-be Potter heirs were aping a facsimile, the epitome of the smart business model for motion pictures, and nothing to genuinely tap into the innovation that made a classic family fantasy effort; nowhere would you see that more obviously than what Eli Roth got up to with Bellairs' material: this even had the same complaints by oversensitive parents that it promoted the occult.
That was unlikely to have been the intention, but was about the most interesting aspect here, something to give it an edge with the under-tens in the way Roth's deliberately button-pushing horror for the adults would for the older age group. Otherwise, it was your wearyingly predictable experience tooled to the Potter formula: bullied kid is in fact special, spells to learn to make that specialness apparent, lots of variable CGI to realise those spells, a scary baddie who seems all powerful until our junior hero can work out how to overcome him, and so on. It's not as if it was badly made, simply wearyingly derivative, and disappointing from Roth who you would have been truly provocative if let loose with his more accustomed bad taste. As it was, a shitting topiary gryphon was the best you could ask for, and that was not much to write home about. Cate Blanchett showed up as Black's cohort to trade barbs with, Kyle MacLachlan was Voldemort, and Roth's wife was in it because of course she was. You'd forget this pretty easily. Music by Nathan Barr.