Skip to main content

Films like The House With a Clock In Its Walls are poisonous to kids’ cinema

Films like The House With a Clock In Its Walls are poisonous to kids’ cinema


Kids’ literature is widely diverse. Why can’t kids’ movies have some variety too?

Share this story

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

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.

Image: Universal Pictures

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.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 24 Striking out

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Andrew WebsterSep 24
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.

A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.

External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.

External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.