With the help of a pair of magicians played by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, a 10-year-old boy must find a hidden clock ticking down to doomsday in this kid-friendly fantasy. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

I don’t think Cate Blanchett has ever given a bad performance in her life. She certainly doesn’t in “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” but let’s just say that in the presence of subpar material she’s definitely not bringing her A-game.

There’s a sense of bemusement in her handling of her role as a well-coiffed (not a hair goes out of place in her upswept gray-hued ‘do during the entirety of the picture) witch residing in a small Michigan town in the 1950s. Considering that at one point her character, named Mrs. Zimmerman, winds up wading shin-deep in pumpkin glop (when Jack-o’-lanterns attack, things get pretty messy), bemusement seems like a proper response.

They’ve paired her up with Jack Black, for whom those sorts of shenanigans come more naturally. Eyes a-twinkle, he plays a cheerily eccentric warlock named Jonathan who is Mrs. Zimmerman’s next-door neighbor and best frenemy. Such fond endearments as “choke and die” are their conversational currency. It’s the definition of a “platonic” relationship, literally, the warlock’s bookish 10-year-old nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) informs them. A well-thumbed dictionary is the kid’s constant companion.

He’s an orphan sent to live with Uncle Jonathan after the death of his parents in a car crash. The uncle’s house, a mildly spooky old pile, is festooned with clocks ticking away on every surface, but the biggest ticker of them all is the one of the title. Unseen, it thumps noisily somewhere on the premises, ticking down toward doomsday. What the boy must do, with the help of magic taught to him by his uncle, is find it and stop it before it ends the world.

In the central role, young Vaccaro is “Clock’s” weakest link. He delivers his lines with competence but without much depth of feeling. As he tearfully laments the deaths of his parents, the words are all there but the conviction isn’t.

“Clock” is adapted from a 1973 novel by the late John Bellairs, the first in a series featuring Lewis. Hmm. Boy wizard, popular novels. Clearly, a Harry Potterlike franchise is the goal here. To achieve that, a kid-friendly PG rating was perceived as a necessity. But for some reason the powers that be behind the scenes decided that Eli Roth would be the best choice to direct. That would be Eli Roth of the hard-R “Hostel” series and the gruesome “Green Inferno.” You get a sense he’s struggling to rein in his penchant for gory frights, and for that reason “Clock” feels like a movie at war with itself.


★★ “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” with Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro. Directed by Eli Roth, from a screenplay by Eric Kripke. 105 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language. Opens Sept. 21 at multiple theaters.