Film is an expressive medium — at least as flexible as books are, in terms of the potential for variety and nuance. So how to explain the way cinema processes so many diverse, nuanced books into generic, nearly identical hunks of cookie-cutter product? And the problem seems particularly pronounced with books aimed at younger readers. When novels as tonally and creatively wide-ranging as Bridge to Terabithia, The Dark is Rising, the first five Spiderwick Chronicles novels, and Cirque du Freak all enter the screen-adaptation machine and come out looking and feeling nearly identical, it’s clear that the problem isn’t with the source material, it’s with filmmakers who are suffering a lack of imagination.
Or maybe it’s just a lack of freedom to express that imagination. There’s a clear studio expectation that all children’s movies should be loud, garish, and impatient, with a lot of action and a few big, bold scares. And the predictability and artificiality of that model is killing the chance for children to experience more than one kind of onscreen story.
The latest children’s classic to hit the cinematic meat-grinder is John Bellairs’ 1973 novel The House With a Clock in Its Walls. The book is a charmingly quaint, deeply eerie supernatural mystery about grief, necromancy, and the apocalypse. The movie version is a shrieking CGI carnival full of poop jokes and barfing pumpkins. Handled properly, the material would look more like The Haunting than like Home Alone. But the filmmaking team seems to have tried their best to iron the quirks and scares out of the book, replacing them with big comedy-horror action beats and a topiary griffin that shits mulch in all directions.
That’s particularly surprising given that the director is Eli Roth, who revamped the horror genre with 2005’s Hostel, which helped usher in a wave of cheap torture-porn movies focusing closely on how slowly and excruciatingly the human body could be taken apart. It’s easy to forget that Roth made animated children’s shorts before he made horror films, but his history comes back into focus during House With a Clock in its Walls, a PG movie made for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and made with a high-energy, low-impact sensibility that’s more Robert Zemeckis than classic horror.
Owen Vaccaro stars as Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year old whose parents recently died in a car accident. It’s 1955, an era mostly expressed through boaty-looking cars and vintage hairstyles, and as a nerdy, weedy kid who wears steampunk goggles everywhere, Lewis stands out at school and on the playground even more than he would in 2018. As the film opens, he’s being shipped cross-country to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a proud eccentric who wears embroidered kimonos, plays saxophone at 3am, and is incidentally a warlock. His house is full of Pee-wee’s Playhouse accoutrements: an animated chair that rolls around accosting people like a friendly dog, a stained-glass window that periodically moves and changes, and that unfortunate back-yard griffin, which has no upsides to offset its habit of explosively spraying people’s faces with leaf-poop every time the film needs a cheap laugh.
And there are a lot of cheap laughs in this version of the story, even though the main story is about an evil wizard (Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan) who died in Jonathan’s house while performing a ghastly ritual, and somehow left behind a monstrous magical clock that’s slowly counting down to some kind of unknown catastrophe. Jonathan and his neighbor and BFF Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) are obsessed with finding and destroying the clock, but they briefly try to keep the danger from Lewis, who’s more interested in trying to make friends at his new school. Briefly, he connects with a popular, scrappy little jock named Tarby (Sunny Suljic), whose broken arm is keeping him off the sports field. But Lewis’ desperation to be liked pushes him toward a terrible decision with literally world-threatening consequences.
This version of the story has its upsides. Cate Blanchett is appealingly brisk and no-nonsense as Mrs. Zimmerman, and her bantering, snippy, utterly platonic relationship with Jonathan Barnavelt is a rare thing in cinema, in kids’ films and adult movies alike. There’s something to be said for a world where adult men and women can be friends and even competitors without a hint of romantic tension or discomfort. Their casual name-calling and friendly disdain for each other feels a lot like a relationship between pre-adolescent kids, and it’s the most authentic thing in the movie.
And the script certainly has its heart in the right place. There’s a dimly realized but still welcome message here about how people are happiest and best-suited for taking on the world when they’ve embraced their own weirdness and found their own talents, instead of trying to change themselves to emulate other people.
But the execution is all yelling and chaos, with Black playing nearly every emotion with a fixed cheery grimace, and slathered-on CGI critters standing in for worldbuilding. Even when the film pulls off an authentically creepy image or potential emotional moment, Nathan Barr’s garish score shoves the audience away from it, and back into the feel of a highly caffeinated circus. The House With a Clock in Its Walls feels a great deal like the early Chris Columbus Harry Potter films, with their forced whimsy and upbeat, frantic pacing. Nothing about those early films had much sense of weight or impact — they just felt like a maniacal race to get deeper into the story.
But the Harry Potter films eventually matured to take on a slower pace, a deeper interest in character, and a better realized world. Kids’ cinema in general could stand to do the same — or at least to offer some variety. Children’s literature is aimed at a wide variety of tastes and interests. There’s no reason children’s movies can’t be as well.