Shockmeister Eli Roth takes on something cosier and comfier than usual with this family-oriented movie about an orphan boy who goes to live with his eccentric and mysterious uncle in a spooky old-timey house, full of clocks. It is adapted by screenwriter Eric Kripke from a children’s fantasy novel published in 1973 by the US author John Bellairs. But, in the larger and more obvious sense, it is basically another post-Potter, post-His-Dark-Materials knockoff, machine-tooled for the tweenie fanbase, about a kid called Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), heartbreakingly lonely and well-mannered, with a quasi-Brit bowtie (does he really tie that thing up every morning, or is it a clip-on?) and sporting an annoying pair of goggles for no very compelling or amusing reason.
Lewis is still coming to terms with the death of his parents and learning a new supernatural skill. Jack Black phones in his performance as the waxy-faced warlock Jonathan Barnavelt; Cate Blanchett plays Jonathan’s similarly gifted neighbour and quarrelsome pal Mrs Zimmerman. Blanchett carries off this part with a lightness and elegance that speaks of her absolute professionalism rather than any great connection with the material.
We are in Michigan and the period would appear to be the 1950s, though with rather more diversity at the local school than you might expect for the era. Lewis has to negotiate the emotional minefield of his new school as best he can, while also discovering an awful truth about the man with whom testy Uncle Jonathan once had a magic act: the strange Isaac Izard, played by Kyle MacLachlan.
It is reasonably inoffensive, a bit like the recent Goosebumps, in which Black played a comparably defanged role, but it looks as if it was produced by some computer programme, devised by accountants and market researchers.