Cinema is an expressive medium, at least as flexible as books, in terms of the potential of variety and nuance. So, how to explain the way in which the cinema processes so many different and nuanced books in generic, almost identical pieces of cookie cutter products? And the problem seems particularly pronounced with books aimed at younger readers. When such wide and tonally creative novels as Bridge to Terabithia The Dark is Rising the first five Spiderwick Chronicles novels, and Cirque du Freak all enter to the screen adaptation machine and they emerge looking and feeling almost identical, it is clear that the problem is not in the source material, but in the filmmakers who lack imagination.
Or maybe it's just a lack of freedom to express that imagination. There is a clear expectation in the study that all films for children are loud, shrill and impatient, with lots of action and some big and bold scares. And the predictability and artificiality of that model is killing the possibility that children experience more than one type of story on screen.
The latest children's classic to hit the cinematic meat grinder is the 1973 novel by John Bellairs The House With a clock on its walls . The book is a charmingly picturesque and deeply mysterious supernatural mystery about pain, necromancy and apocalypse. The film version is a garish CGI carnival full of jokes of poop and pumpkins. Properly handled, the material would look more like The Haunting than like Home Alone . But the film crew seems to have done everything possible to eliminate the whims and frights of the book, replacing them with great comedies of action of horror and terror and a tap of topiary that pampers the mulch in all directions.
That's particularly surprising given that the director is Eli Roth, who renewed the horror genre with the hostel of 2005 that helped usher in a wave of cheap torture porn movies focusing on close in the slow and unbearable human body. It's easy to forget that Roth made animated children's shorts before making horror films, but his story is back in focus for House With a Clock in the Walls a PG movie made for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, and he did with a high-energy, low-impact sensibility that is more of Robert Zemeckis than classic horror.
Owen Vaccaro plays Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year-old boy whose parents died recently in a car accident. It's 1955, a time expressed mostly through vintage-looking cars and vintage hairstyles, and like a nerd, a weedy child wearing steampunk glasses everywhere, Lewis stands out at school and on the playground even more than he would in 2018. As the film opens, he is sent cross country to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a proud eccentric who wears embroidered kimonos, plays the saxophone at 3 o'clock in the morning and, by the way, he's a sorcerer. His house is full of accoutrements from Pee-wee's Playhouse : an animated chair that surrounds the audience like a friendly dog, stained glass that moves and changes periodically, and that unfortunate backyard tap , which has no advantages to compensate for his habit of explosively spraying the faces of people with leaf flakes every time the movie needs a cheap laugh.
And there are many cheap laughs in this version of the story, although the main story is about an evil dead wizard ( Twin Peaks & Kyle MacLachlan) who died at Jonathan's house while He performed an awful ritual, and somehow left behind a monstrous magic clock that slowly counts down to some kind of unknown catastrophe. Jonathan and his neighbor BFF Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) are obsessed with finding and destroying the clock, but they try briefly to avoid the danger of Lewis, who is more interested in trying to make friends at his new school. In short, he connects with a small and popular athlete named Tarby (Sunny Suljic), whose broken arm keeps him away from the sports field. But Lewis's desperation for being loved pushes him towards a terrible decision with consequences that literally threaten the world.
This version of the story has its advantages. Cate Blanchett is attractive and sensible as Mrs. Zimmerman, and her strident, completely platonic relationship with Jonathan Barnavelt is rare in movies, children's films and adult movies alike. There is something to be said for a world where adult men and women can be friends and even competitors without a hint of tension or romantic discomfort. Their occasional insults and friendly mutual contempt are very much like a relationship between preadolescent children, and it is the most authentic aspect of the film.
And the script certainly has its heart in the right place. There is a vaguely realized but still welcome message here about how people are happier and better adapted to face the world when they have embraced their own rarity and found their own talents, instead of trying to change to emulate other people.
But the execution is all screams and chaos, with Black playing almost all emotions with a cheerful and fixed grimace, and CGI creatures slathered-on standing for the construction of the world. Even when the film achieves a truly spooky image or a potential emotional moment, the strident score of Nathan Barr drives the audience away and returns to the sensation of a highly caffeinated circus. The house with a clock on the walls feels very similar to the first films of Chris Columbus Harry Potter, with his forced caprice and accelerated and frantic pace. Nothing about those early films had a lot of weight or impact: they just felt like a manic race to delve into the story.
But the Harry Potter films finally matured to take a slower pace, a deeper interest in the character, and a better realized world. Children's films in general could do the same, or at least offer some variety. Children's literature is aimed at a wide variety of tastes and interests. There is no reason why movies for children can not be.