Directed by Eli Roth
Starring – Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccard
The Plot – Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccard), after losing his parents, is sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black). He discovers his uncle is a warlock, and enters a world of magic and sorcery. But this power is not limited to good people: Lewis learns of Isaac Izard (Kyle Maclachlan), an evil wizard who wanted to cause the Apocalypse so that he could see what happened afterwards. To do this, he constructed a magical clock with black magic, as long as it exists it will keep ticking, counting down to doomsday. He died before he could finish the clock, but he hid the clock in his house, where Uncle Jonathan now lives. Now Lewis and Jonathan must find the clock before it’s too late, and before Isaac’s wife, Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry), gets to it.
Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and adult language
– Zany production designs on every level. This is a film that takes place in the 1950’s, and what I appreciate about that is it gives the film a one-of-a-kind style in wardrobe and architecture to compliment the special effects that are constantly flying at us on-screen. The wardrobe in particular is a delightful throwback to the days of faded gowns and dusty blue jeans, and the lighting scheme inside of the house vibrates well off of the gothic style set pieces, that all of which perfectly capture the mood of the material in spades.
– Strong crossover appeal with Harry Potter fans. Whether you know it or not, the book of the same name for which this film is based on was actually an inspiration for J.K Rowling and her series of novels that have re-defined the young adult genre respectfully, so it’s certainly easy to see the appeal for kids in particular, who will easily immerse themselves in this world of similarity. I do have problems with some of the magic itself, which I will get to later on, but there’s clearly enough paranormal instances depicted here that will give the less-picky audience members a roaring good time.
– Black and Blanchett steal the stage. What I appreciated about their relationship more than anything is that the film doesn’t forcefully paint them as this romantic coupling just because every film seems to require that. These are very much two friends with devilishly delicious banter back-and-forth, who colorfully narrate the bond between them that transcends romance. In that way, they very much feel like outcast soulmates who have grown together because of their inability to fit in anywhere else in society, and the duo constantly keep this film on the railings of positivity thanks to their portrayals never feeling like this is a basic paycheck job.
– Sentimentality. Beneath the complexions of spells and warlocks, what won me over for this film immensely was the subplot involving Lewis’s remorse for his parents, and how it crafted and underlying layer of sensitivity for the film that I wasn’t expecting. Early on especially, we feel a sense of great isolation for Lewis that overrides the actor’s lack of focus on emotional resonance, keeping our investment in the character firmly for wanting to see him achieve the greatness he is destined for. Where the film ends especially hammers this angle home, and proves that this film has the heart required to counterbalance the scares, that could or could not test the younger audience.
– Enchanting musical score by Nathan Barr. More often than not, Barr’s tones of temperament ease us through the majestic mystery that resides in this gorgeous house, repeatedly giving that feeling of possibility in the air that the film’s environment requires. Nathan uses a lot of orchestral cues in enhancing the energy of what transpires visually, and offers enough variety in samplings to never feel like each piece is rubbing together or repeating.
– Great world-building in magical spells that will surely satisfy even the most hardcore magic fans. What I like about the spells mentioned and portrayed in the film is that they very much feel like they are ones that are at an introductory level, for the beginner who has recently picked up the skill of magic. Never in the film does Lewis feel like this prodigy who advances without practice, and I appreciate when a film isn’t afraid to document a character’s struggle, especially for something that is anything but easy to pick-up as a casual hobby.
– Poor child acting. I’ve already mentioned what worked about Vaccaro’s performance, but his screeching delivery and unbalanced emotional registry made for an uninentional rendering of the character that left him more annoying than indulging. In particular, it’s Owen’s inability to play up the dramatic pulse of the film dealing with his deceased parents that constantly underwhelmed, and left me wondering what could’ve been. Beyond Owen, the extras in the school scene severely lack focus. There are scenes where kids are in frame staring at the camera, that left me wondering how this ever got past the editing room that usually fixes these sort of ordeals.
– Obvious Plot Ploys. As usual in kids movies, there’s a lot of emphasis in the first act objects and subplots that are briefly mentioned, yet quickly diminished, that you know will pop up eventually as the film goes on. It’s terribly distracting for how these drops of exposition force their way into these casual conversations, but one in particular is far worse than the rest. This involves a backstory flashback scene shown to us the audience in film-strips, but doesn’t answer the question of how or who is filming this amazingly edited scene for the time.
– While this isn’t Eli Roth’s best film to date in my opinion, it is definitely the most ambitious of his career. Unfortunately, Eli is only half up to the task of the scope of such a legendary story, feeling the constant nagging of tonal imbalance and lack of overall wonderment that the story so desperately requires. There are interesting aspects that go bump in the night, but the volume of Roth’s magic feels very tamed when compared to a Potter or Goosebumps film that properly emphasized more of the impact and consequences from its delicate pages.
– Underwhelming effects work. While not everything is terrible about the 90% C.G work here, there’s also nothing impressive about it that we haven’t seen from better films. In the era of computer generated effects that often lack weight or heft to their inclusion, here comes another film that finds its way into that dreaded category. The layers of color constantly feel off with their manufactured properties when compared to physical that surrounds them, and the interaction with live actors always feels a step too late to feel surprising.