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The House with a Clock in its Walls review: A Harry Potter imitation worth your time

Spoiler-free review: Forced to move in with his estranged uncle, an orphan discovers that the creepy house has a mind of its own. And a ticking heartbeat.

Amblin Entertainment/Mythology Entertainment

Eli Roth is most notable for directing Hostel and Hostel: Part II. He's part of the Splat Pack, a group of filmmakers who make explicitly gory horror movies. And he's the Bear Jew -- you know, from Inglourious Basterds.

Now he's making… kid movies?

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, directed by Roth, is a children's fantasy movie based on the beloved 1973 novel by John Bellairs. It's about a house with a literal clock in its walls. It has elements of fantasy and mystery, grounds for Roth to use his horror sensibilities. (Harry Potter is sweet and magical, but the terrifying villains across eight films did give kids nightmares.)

Unfortunately, Roth doesn't manage to perform the same trick. Instead, it feels like he 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.

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Our nerdy hero Lewis, played by Owen Vaccaro.

Amblin Entertainment/Mythology Entertainment

Harry -- I mean Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) -- is an orphan who moves to Michigan to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). It's 1955. Kids look like Danny Zuko and everything is varying shades of brown. Uncle Jonathan's house is an eerie abode with jack-o'-lanterns in the front yard year round. Jonathan lives with best friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who literally arrives on screen by bursting through a clock.

The clocks are many in this household. Lewis starts to notice strange, magical occurrences. A painting of a boat bobs on moving waves. Playing cards change numbers so he wins at poker. The well-worn armchair wasn't in that spot before. Oh, and there's that weird room filled with every freaky doll you can think of.

There are moments that will probably scare kids, though Roth is constantly dialing those back to stay in child-friendly territory. Aside from a demon that looks particularly hairy, the film is mostly made up of scares of the pee-your-pants variety.

There's also a distinct lack of style or place, elements that make It and Stranger Things stand out. There's talk of World War II and its effects, but more locations and nods to the way people lived in the '50s would have added more depth.

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Jack Black and Cate Blanchett play Lewis' kooky guardians.

Amblin Entertainment/Mythology Entertainment

Black and Blanchett aren't the most likely of duos, and it takes time to get used to their platonic relationship, which involves constant back-and-forth jabs -- "You kook!" -- that thankfully increase in funniness the longer they go on.

Speaking of Blanchett, she rarely disappoints, and it turns out she's masterful at playing a weirdo. Her character is an exclusively purple-outfit-wearing good witch who harbors a demon, one that's inside not out. Constantly baking cookies instead of performing magic, she's clearly hiding a darker past behind her increasingly creative jabs.

Channeling Derren Brown (and Derren Brown's facial hair), Black is lovable as the kimono-wearing, carefree uncle who serves up cookies for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He teaches Lewis magic, producing some of the most Harry Potter-like and enjoyable moments, especially when Lewis uses his new skills on a bully.

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There's a lot of magic going on.

Amblin Entertainment/Mythology Entertainment

Magic-related bases are well and truly covered: a book of ancient spells, a mysterious bone key, a forbidden cabinet, secret doors, a magical library, a tormenting curse. But there's a sense they're just checkboxes. It's only when they involve real kid drama, like Lewis trying to raise the dead to show off to a friend, that they feel purposeful.

For once, the ending could have used more Harry Potter-ness. People throw around explanations for their evil grand plans like they're in an Agatha Christie novel. Lewis, in his tweed jacket, vest and bowtie, is clearly smart -- and odd. He lugs dictionaries around in his backpack, defining words like "indomitable" as if he's watched both adaptations of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. But there's no satisfying moment where he proves his child-sleuth capabilities and bests the silly adults.

With all these kooky characters, the clear moral is that it's OK to be weird. It's all about finding your own special kind of magic from within.

Just like Mrs. Zimmerman's cookies, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is sweet and filled with nuts -- and as she says, "It's the nuts that make things interesting." If only there was a special ingredient to give this tale a unique flavor. But it does get a gold star for sympathetic unconventional heroes. And that just might be enough for parents, too.

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