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‘House with a Clock in its Walls’ doesn’t want to be too scary, or funny

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is a PG movie that doesn’t want to be too scary, or too funny, or apparently too interesting. And it succeeds on all three fronts.

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Another way of saying this is that it’s not scary enough and not funny enough and certainly not interesting enough for most adults. Kids won’t mind, of course, as 10 year olds are clearly the target audience.

Conveniently, the hero of our story is 10 years old. His name is Lewis and, following the death of his parents, he’s sent to stay with his eccentric uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), who lives in the creepiest of Victorian mansions. The house is overstuffed with hundreds of ticking clocks, automatons, living furniture, secret passageways, books of magic, even stained glass windows that move.

But as unnerving as the house is to Lewis, the “house rules” are the stuff of every kid’s dream.

“Don’t I have to have dinner before I’m allowed to have cookies?” Lewis asks his uncle.

“Why not just eat cookies for dinner?” the uncle replies. “They’re far more delicious.”

“I know, it’s just that we have these house rules.”

“Well, not in this house. There’s no bedtime, bath time, or meal time. You can eat cookies until you throw up for all I care. You’ll see. Things are quite different here.”

And if that isn’t enough to delight a child, the mansion’s garden features a giant topiary griffin who farts up a storm of leaves.

“Bad kitty!” Uncle Jonathan yells after smelling “rancid sulfur.”

And when a bunch of pumpkins come to life and threatens Lewis, Jonathan and his neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), the jack-o’-lanterns attack in a way that’s sure to delight the little ones.

“Don’t worry their teeth are made of pumpkins, they can’t really hurt us,” Uncle Jonathan notes, before a pumpkin spews all over him. Yes, the pumpkins vomit up their orange innards all over their victims, much like the celebrities who get slimed with green goop at Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards.

The actual clock in the wall that gives the movie (and the book that it’s based on) its title gets relatively short shrift in the film. It’s a hidden clock that portends some kind of doom, but the movie is more concerned with Lewis’ sidebar escapades at school and at the cemetery.

Those escapades involve Lewis learning the arts of magic from Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. And these two parental figures have some very parental advice for the boy.

“It’s not what you say, Lewis, it’s how you say it,” Mrs. Zimmerman says. “You’re the only you in the whole universe.”

“That makes your style of magic, just crazy unique — one in a hundred million gillion,” Uncle Jonathan says. “So I can give you the right books, teach you the right spells, but that last 1 percent, that’s up to you.”

“So, how do I find my magic style, or whatever,” Lewis asks.

“It’s in there somewhere. You just have to quiet down and listen,” his uncle advises.

(Silence)

“Now it just looks like you’re pooping,” Uncle Jonathan notes.

Always a joke.

When the mystery of the clock is finally revealed it becomes clear this story might have been psychologically deeper than we’d assumed. But ultimately the film seems more interested in kid-friendly shocks and giggles than in any overarching theme. Just like any 10 year old would want.

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