Review: The House With a Clock in its Walls

A film about loss, grief, magic and transformation, The House with a Clock in its Walls is a deliciously supernatural family film, peppered with healthy smatterings of Steampunk. A bit of fun and a bit of delight, this feel-good feature is given a hefty boost in the charisma stakes by the unlikely yet potent combo of Cate Blanchett, Kyle Maclachlan and Jack Black.

It’s the mid 1950s and ten-year-old Lewis is an orphan following the untimely demise of his parents. He’s catapulted into a world of whimsy, magic and fantasy when he is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan. Portrayed by the playful Jack Black, Jonathan turns out to be a warlock who spends his time sashaying about a lovely old mansion that creaks – and ticks mysteriously. Jonathan tends to kick about alongside his neighbour, a tragic Mary Poppins-like bestie, the purple-clad Florence Zimmerman, executed with precision by the always excellent Cate Blanchett. Like Lewis, Florence is also grieving after having lost her husband and child. Once a powerful witch, Florence’s spells these days are more likely to misfire – simply because her heart is just no longer in it.

It soon becomes apparent to Lewis that the house is magical – pictures on the wall spring to life, a lounge chair leaps through the halls with Fido-like zest, and a topiary griffin proves the need for kitty litter on the astral plane. But amid this lovely chaos lies a secret – a magical curse that could spring back the clockwork of time and end the world as we know it. Luckily, that’s all under control for the time being.

Lewis, however, is a prime target for trouble. The grieving boy is besieged by loneliness – something that his aviator goggles, buttoned-up shirts, and fascination for the wonders of science – do nothing to assuage. Fitting in at his new school is no mean feat, and he’ll do just about anything to make friends. When a bit of good-old-fashioned necromancy enters the picture, the evil magical curse begins to unravel for Lewis and his new housemates.

This latest offering from Amblin follows on from decades of Spielberg movie magic, and there’s a real sense that it comes from a tried and true tradition that knows how to make a beautiful, fantastical kid’s flick. But while it’s a gorgeous film, there’s not a lot new here and it does feel a little derivative. With a character arc or two missing some crucial elements, this is not an instant classic. However The House with a Clock in its Walls doesn’t promise a whole lot more than fantasy, adventure and magic, and it certainly delivers that in spades. But to be fair, this is not just a film about fun and adventure – at its heart is a storyline of coping with grief and the beauty we can encounter when we finally let go of our crippling sadness and understand that time must move forward.

Visually sumptuous and with fantasy literally leaking out of its cracks, The House with a Clock in its Walls is a lovely, gentle and otherworldly escape. Family members of all ages will enjoy this one.

*** 1/2

The House with a Clock in its Walls is in cinemas now.