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Jack Black delivers yet another variation on the potentially-mad-relative routine in juvenile spookfest The House With a Clock in its Walls

The House With a Clock in its Walls (12A)
Running time 1h 45mins
Rating: **

NOT all that long ago, Jack Black’s legend was as an adult-oriented comedy star with a sideline in inoffensive family fare – a sort of hair-metal Will Ferrell, if you will. By far his best performance of the past decade was a billing as a small-town mortician in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, but everyone knows him as the goofily-charismatic substitute teacher in School of Rock or as the voice behind a certain Kung Fu Panda. This chameleon act worked well enough for him in the 2000s, but he’s mostly been gigging on the kid-fantasy circuit of late; the excruciatingly-titled The House With a Clock in its Walls, then, represents the latest chapter in an increasingly typecast career, as Black delivers yet another variation on the same potentially-mad-relative routine that we were last treated to in 2015’s Goosebumps.It fancies itself a tweenage Potter clone, but it’s more akin to a shoestring redux of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, right down to its sickly faux-steampunk aesthetic. Director Eli Roth, like Scorsese, is better-known for his triennial servings of blood and guts than anything you’d take the tots to see (and he’s got about a billionth of Scorsese’s talent under his belt, to boot).

Though its source is pushing 50, the plot of THWaCiIW (breathe) reads like the sort of thing every canny young-adult novelist with an eye on a movie deal is pushing nowadays. Orphan Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is shunted into the care of his uncle Jonathan (Black), a magician whose mansion has a literal doomsday clock ensconced within its walls. He lives next door to a witch (Cate Blanchett) with whom he maintains a (strictly platonic) flirt/hate relationship. Vaccaro leaves quite a bit more of an impression than his adult counterparts, but he’s dealt a poor hand by a script which, for all its quirks and convolutions (farting bushes, pumpkin monsters), is woefully outmoded. Likewise, the very concept of the Black-Blanchett double-act evinces a few guilty laughs, but the going gets tough as the film descends into formulaic PG-13 peril, as Jonathan accidentally summons former partner-turned-malevolent warlock Izard (Kyle MacLachlan).

Much about THWaCiIW feels opaque and undercooked, hinting at a gloomier, more retro vision that the studio, in any case, suppressed. More likely, it’s simply a matter of Roth’s schlock credentials coming to the fore. Though the movie toys with darker material (Izard’s misanthropy recalls the nihilistic violence of the Second World War), it’s drowned out amid a flood of manufactured whimsy and cheap humour. It proceeds at a rollicking pace, refusing to get bogged down in the universe-building that’s been the bane of family flicks in recent years. Moreover, kudos is due for its minimalistic approach to CGI, lending the visuals an old-school sensibility (that is, if you squint hard enough). But it really is the gold standard for kids’ own fantasy-by-committee.

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