Now here is a movie that was definitely made with Halloween in mind. The timing of its release is no accident. It features several themes but is, ultimately, a horror flick for kids. The movie opens with a young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro) seen on a bus heading to New Zebedee, Michigan. The year is 1955. Interestingly, John Bellairs, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, grew up in Marshall, Michigan, and Marshall is the “real” New Zebedee. There is even a mansion in Marshall which the author used for his inspiration.
Lewis is moving into a mansion with his Uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), whose father disowned him years before due to his interest in magic and the black arts. Lewis’s mom wanted to still have a relationship with Jonathan but he never came back into her life. Lewis learns his uncle has some regrets about that fact. In one of the opening sequences when Lewis sees a bunch of Jack O’ Lanterns all lit up in front of the mansion, he asks Uncle Jonathan, “Do you like Halloween?” “No, I keep these here year round,” he replies. He also tells Lewis that he can stay up as long as he wants, eat when he wants, and eat cookies until he gets sick and throws up.
Cate Blanchett plays the next door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, and she is into magic as is Jonathan. They are not a couple but act like it; they often bicker and get annoyed with one another, yet are always there for one another. Various themes are played out in the movie, including that of dealing with grief as Lewis continues to miss his parents. In fact, he believes he sees his mother come to him at night to comfort him. But is it really her?
One theme showcased in the film is about finding one’s self and one’s place in this life. Lewis decides he wants to learn magic and spells as his uncle practices magic. Soon he becomes a novice practitioner of the occult sciences, casting spells and reading tons of books on the subject. One spell involves him cutting his finger and spilling blood on a book.
Lewis doesn’t fit in very well at school at first but then meets a young man named Tarby, who is running for class president. But is Tarby friendly for just Lewis’s vote? In one amusing scene, there is a long line of kids at the water fountain and a particular kid is drinking and drinking, taking forever and delighting in making the others wait. Lewis uses his magic and makes the water splash the young jerk in the face. It is a delightful moment in the movie. In still yet another funny scene, Uncle Jonathan is hurriedly trying to get into another room, via a smashed window at the top of a locked door. Mrs. Zimmerman helps him by placing a coat rack at his rear and shoving him on up. It has to be seen to be appreciated.
Ultimately, the movie is about Uncle Jonathan, Lewis, and Mrs. Zimmerman finding a hidden clock within the walls of the house that the evil wizard, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), set to go off during the darkest night of modern times. It will rid the earth of human beings, and all of them will cease to exist. Can they find the clock before the final tick? It is a race against time as the movie climaxes to the dramatic moment when mere seconds remain to find the clock.
The Dove Take
Despite the fact that the movie features some nice themes, it is strong with several references to the occult and sorcery, including a scene in which a demon cuts a character’s palm and then licks up the blood and another where a boy uses a spell of necromancy to raise a corpse. Suffice it to say that there are several frightening scenes, which many of our Dove audience would not find to be wholesome entertainment. For these reasons, we are withholding our Dove Seal from this movie.