'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' Early Buzz: Fine But Forgettable Family Fun

Eli Roth, splatter-horror filmmaker extraordinaire, directing a kid's movie headlined by Cate Blanchett and Jack Black? With a team like that, how could The House with a Clock in its Walls possibly turn out? Apparently, exactly how you'd expect it to turn out, according to critics.

Early buzz of the fantasy film adapting John Bellairs' 1973 children's novel of the same name says that The House with a Clock in its Walls has all the hallmarks of its family-fantasy genre and none of the hallmarks of director Roth's gory repertoire. But that's fine, because with an enthusiastic Blanchett and Black leading the fantasy film, The House with a Clock in its Walls is perfectly attuned to its target demographic — and not much else.

Find out what critics have to say in our round-up of The House with a Clock in its Walls early buzz.

The Hollywood Reporter calls the film "a zany, immaculately designed kids adventure," adding:

The movie is a throwback to studio fare like Hocus Pocus or Casper — it's anybody's guess if Universal can entice parents to theaters when it opens Friday. But as a family film in that vein it largely succeeds, buoyed by Black's typical exuberance, Blanchett's typical slyness and a richly evocative rendering of a Rockwellian suburb sprinkled with goofer dust. Less interesting, as is the way with many audience-avatar YA protagonists (sorry, Harry), is the main character, and Vaccaro's rather hyper-articulated performance doesn't help.

Forbes praises the movie as a "wonderful, kid-sized horror fantasy," arguing that The House with a Clock in Its Walls would be considered a "generational classic had it opened in 1984":

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a delight. As the first film from the revived Amblin brand, it stands alongside the "just for kids" classics of the 1980's and 1990's while refusing to merely homage or copy those generational classics. Based on a John Bellairs novel and adapted by Erick Kripke, this Eli Roth-directed fantasy expertly blends kid-sized scares with all-ages wonderment. The picture feels bigger than its (mostly) single-set location, although that single set (an expansive mansion on the outskirts of town) looks and feels like a cleaner version of Crimson Peak. But it understands that all the glorious production design in the world doesn't mean much without an engaging cast of core characters.

io9 admits that while The House with a Clock in Its Walls has some "enchanting moments," it is "mostly forgettable":

The fact of the matter is The House with a Clock in Its Walls simply isn't that exciting. It's set in a world of magic and wonder that rarely feels magical or wonderful. It's a world in which a person can bring someone back from the dead and then immediately go to bed, and where a chair can have a personality but not do anything of significance. Almost everything in the movie, even the CG creatures, somehow feel grounded, which tends to undercut many of the more fantastic elements. A few scenes, like a patch of killer pumpkins, work as intended, but that's the exception, not the rule.

IndieWire is a bit harsher, praising Cate Blanchett's performance as a "charming" witch, but calling the YA adaptation "a waste of time":

Universal's soulless 2018 film adaptation of the same name, on the other hand, is directed by "Hostel" auteur Eli Roth, whose cartoonish approach makes this bittersweet saga of witchcraft and wizardry feel like nothing more than a well-furnished theme park attraction. Still, it's sure to be a veritable nightmare factory for kids of a certain age, and there can only be so much shade to throw at a movie in which Cate Blanchett head-butts a demonically possessed pumpkin in order to help save the world from Kyle MacLachlan's rotting corpse.

The Wrap praises both Blanchett and Jack Black's performances, stating that "Cate Blanchett and Jack Black are clearly having a blast as a friendly witch and warlock, and their joy is infectious":

In other words, "The House With a Clock in Its Walls" is exactly what it looks like, and more or less exactly what it should be. It's the perfect double feature with "Goosebumps," another surprisingly effective family-horror hybrid starring Jack Black.

ScreenRant says the "spooky fun" that comes from The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the work of Blanchett and Black:

Still, the stars of The House with a Clock in Its Walls aren't the magic or even Vaccaro's Lewis, it's Black and Blanchett, who serve as the two core characters in the film's story. Kripke, who has created such beloved on-screen teams as Supernatural's Winchester brothers and Timeless' Lifeboat team, puts his stamp on the duo of Jonathan and Florence, who trade fun barbs and banter throughout the film. For their parts, Black and Blanchett bring effervescent life to their roles, seemingly having as much fun playing the over-the-top characters as viewers will have watching them on screen. Though Black and Blanchett work best together – particularly with Blanchett working exceptionally well as the straight man to Black's typically boisterous humor – they also bring a compelling amount of depth to their characters.

CNET notes that the YA fantasy is a "a Harry Potter imitation" but it's "worth your time":

Instead, it feels like [Roth] watched every single children's fantasy ever made, picked the parts he liked best and plonked them into a boiling cauldron. The end result is, well, a better-than-average Harry Potter wannabe — which, in the end, might just be enough for kids.

Entertainment Weekly also pulls out the Harry Potter comparisons for The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which "kind of works":

Adapted from John Bellairs' 1973 YA mystery fantasia, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is like a mash-up of Harry PotterThe Addams Family, and the Goosebumps saga, but busier, noisier, and more exhausting. It's mostly giddy, ghouly fun — even if you walk away with the impression that it might have made a slightly better Universal Theme Park attraction than a film.

Variety calls the film "clunky but not entirely un-charming" in its "vaguely Harry Potter-esque wish-fulfillment fantasies," adding:

While not terribly original, it would be fair to call the movie inventive, like one of those eccentrics who's constantly pestering the patent office with what he thinks are fresh ideas, only to discover that someone else got there first. Together with production designer John Hutman and "Beauty and the Beast" VFX supervisor Louis Morin, Roth has brought to life a creepy mansion with surprises around every corner, many of which linger in the imagination long after the film has ended — from an anthropomorphic armchair that follows Lewis around like some kind of lonely old pet to the flatulent topiary griffin that keeps guard over the garden. Add to that the cadre of menacing jack-o'-lanterns out front and a room full of sinister-looking automatons that spring to life late in the film, and you've got plenty of supernatural supporting players to generate a few decent set-pieces. Whether today's kids look back as fondly on "House" as their parents do on previous Amblin productions, only time will tell.


While it mildly annoys me that most of the critics think so lowly of children so as to deem subpar fantasy entertainment "enough for the kids," I guess there's not much else to expect of a movie that leans so heavily into its camp.

It's just a matter of whether you love Blanchett and Black enough to put up with the more tedious fantasy elements, or whether you'll forgive familiar tropes that you've already seen time and time again. The House with a Clock in its Walls seems like it asks a lot of audiences, but at the same time, it knows what it is: a fine, but ultimately forgettable, family film.

The House with a Clock in its Walls opens in theaters on September 21, 2018.