The Evolution of Jack Black Into a Kid-Friendly Star

[This story contains minor spoilers for The House with a Clock in its Walls]

There was once a time when Jack Black didn’t predominantly star in family films, though it may be hard to set your mind back to the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, Black was one half of the comic hard-rock band Tenacious D, and had a breakout supporting role in the R-rated romantic comedy High Fidelity. These days, though, when Black co-stars in non-family-facing fare like Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, he’s in independent films. His latest starring vehicle is The House with a Clock in its Walls, a kid-friendly spooky adventure that further proves the family film genre is his wheelhouse, for good or ill.

In this adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 novel, Black stars as Jonathan Barnavelt, an oddball living in a small Michigan town who takes in his recently orphaned nephew Lewis. Jonathan, to Lewis’ shock, is a warlock who’s trying to figure out where the eponymous clock is located in his massive and magic-filled house. Jonathan and his witchy next-door neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett) eventually realize that the clock portends the end of humanity and need Lewis’ help to take down an undead warlock and his devious wife.

From his first scene, it’s clear that Black’s wild-child personality is still very much on display; we see Jonathan write a letter to Lewis after the death of the boy’s parents, and by the time the letter is finished, he has to acknowledge he’s accidentally left a chocolate stain on it. Once Lewis encounters his mysterious uncle, Jonathan shows himself to be as much of a showboat as a figure of magic. When it’s revealed midway through the film that Jonathan and his now-evil ex-partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) used to perform their magic on stage together, it fits; Black’s naturally flamboyant style of acting is evident instantly.

Though he did have a small role in the first Ice Age film, Black’s unending streak of family films began with his outsized and memorable lead performance in the PG-13-rated School of Rock. In that superlative comedy, his performance as Dewey Finn felt like a perfect distillation of Black as a person without it being so edgy as to alienate audiences. Though that film’s as much indebted to a spikier kid-focused film like The Bad News Bears, School of Rock was enough of a hit and featured Black bouncing naturally off a group of goofy kids indulging in their inner rockers that his further family films felt like a logical progression.

Since School of Rock, Black has spent far more time in family films than anything more adult. There have been notable exceptions, such as the broad R-rated comedy Tropic Thunder or the indie darling Margot at the Wedding. But in the last decade especially, either in part because of the lack of success of films like Year One and The Big Year, or simply so he can keep making films his kids can see, Black’s stayed most comfortable in family-friendly films. A few years ago, he co-starred as real-life author R.L. Stine in Sony’s Goosebumps adaptation, and last December, he appeared alongside Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in the massively popular Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, getting to stretch a bit more than usual, embodying a Mean Girl type in the body of a ... well, Jack Black type.

The House with a Clock in its Walls doesn’t feature Black stretching too much. He has an unsurprisingly nice chemistry with Blanchett, as well as with child actor Owen Vaccaro as Lewis. And Black’s generally manic nature fits in with his character, whose self-involved intensity comes at the expense of others. But it would not be hard to imagine a version of the film’s screenplay describing Jonathan as a “Jack Black type”. It’s not quite that this movie needed to push itself to cast someone unexpected as the enigmatic warlock, but this also kind of feels like a character Black could play in his sleep.

One of the few unexpected moments in the film occurs in the climax. Jonathan and Lewis are facing off against Isaac, who performs a spell on Jonathan to turn him into a baby ... a baby with the head of Jack Black. It’s one of the few special effects in The House with a Clock in its Walls that flat-out doesn’t work. (Imagine something akin to the depiction of old-man-in-little-boy’s-body Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but ... with Jack Black instead.) While the effect is more unnerving than intended, it’s one of the few scenes where you get the sense Black got to be a little naughtier than his family fare usually allows. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t let him stretch.