A film review by Craig J. Koban January 23, 2017

RANK:  #23

A MONSTER CALLS jjj

2016, PG-13, 108 mins.

 

Lewis MacDougall as Conor O'Malley  /  Sigourney Weaver as Grandma  /  Felicity Jones as Lizzie O'Malley  /  Toby Kebbell as Dad  /  Liam Neeson as The Monster  /  Geraldine Chaplin as The Head Teacher

Directed by J..A. Bayona  /  Written by Patrick Ness, based on his book of the same name

A MONSTER CALLS has been wrongfully advertised as a children's film.  

It's really a dark fantasy - based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness - that just happens to have a child as its main character.  

Director J.A. Bayona (THE IMPOSSIBLE) doesn't once hide behind this film's macabre subject matter and all of the grim and disheartening realities associated with it.  Yes, A MONSTER CALLS contains a very large and frightening monster, to be sure, that befriends the child in question, but it's an atypically grounded and authentically rendered family drama about the nature of life, death, terminal illness, and coping with the startling inevitability of a loved one's death.  It celebrates and wisely meditates on the ordeal of young people as they try to process conflicting feelings during close-to-home trauma...and perhaps far better than most other non-fantasy films. 

The aforementioned lad is 12-year-old Connor (in a rich performance of nuance and maturity far beyond his years by Lewis MacDougall), and he has hit absolute rock bottom in his very young life.  Not only is he largely friendless and socially introverted, but he's also the subject of malicious bullying on a daily basis at school.  The ultimate soul crushing punch to his gut occurs when its revealed that his mother (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer and is suffering an inordinate amount of daily pain while trying to desperately take one new treatment after the other.  Connor also has great difficulty dealing with his somewhat mean tempered grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and the prospect of potentially moving in with her after his mother passes.  Connor's largely absentee father (Toby Kebell) is mostly out of the picture, seeing as he's divorced from his wife and now works and resides in another country with his new family.   

If there were ever a movie child that deserves an instant hug of reassurance then it's this one.

 

 

Of course, a mother dying, a dysfunctional family, and being emotionally and physically tormented at school would be enough the break any boy, but Connor tries as only he can to make it through each day.  Unfortunately, he's stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the fact that his mother will most likely die.  Fate steps in during precisely seven minutes past midnight one evening, during which time a gargantuan tree-like beast the size of a house (voiced with bass-heavy gravitas by Liam Neeson) appears to the startled boy.  The monster matter-of-factly relays to Connor that he will appear three times - at 12:07 am - to tell him three stories that will help ease his suffering and make sense of the world around him.  Beyond the initial shock of having a living 50 foot tree man appear before him, Connor seems annoyed by this mystical being's lack of tangible help in assisting his mother escaping death's grip. 

Right from the outset, A MONSTER CALLS is far more adult themed than I was frankly expecting going in, and I mean that as an esteemed compliment.  The story deals with an underlining message about death that viewers both young and old will, no doubt, benefit from, but it refreshingly doesn't sanitize them in any way for schmaltzy effect.  The monster's stories within the story have a complexity of interrelated meaning that all manage to, in one form or another, deal with the thorny ambiguities of unpredictable human nature.  The moral that they also collectively propagate - which the monster hopes to imprint on the psychologically damaged Connor - is that, for lack of a better phrase, shit happens in life, so it's best to accept it, deal with it, and move on.  The obligatory fairy tale "happily ever after" ending will undoubtedly not occur for poor Connor, which is precisely why the monster is trying to educate him on how people harness anger, love, kindness, and fear to allow for them to learn and become healthy beings.   

The monster itself is a fiendishly innovative design, which sort of looks like the love child of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY's Groot and THE LORD OF THE RING's Ents...and is the product of cutting edge computer generated visual effects and good old fashioned sleight of hand model puppetry (the transition between both hemispheres is seamless).  Bayona and company resist the temptation to make this beast look invitingly attractive: he's a horrifying monster that invites real intimidation upon his first appearance (Neeson is also pitch perfectly cast to voice him, giving the creation a level of ethereal menace).  Despite his grotesque facade, the monster is a calmly authoritative entity in Connor's troubled life that allows for the boy to join him on his three-story quest to impart wisdom on him.  A MONSTER CALLS instinctively understands that the monster is not used for the purposes of simplistically wowing audiences; he serves a crucial purpose in the film's overarching narrative. 

Make no mistake about it, though, Bayona's film is a treasure trove of visual delights and looks sensational throughout.  I especially admired the overall look of the monster's three stories, one of which takes the form of a sumptuously rendered water color painting come lovingly to life (the film's conceptual imagination is extraordinary to behold).  Thankfully, A MONSTER CALLS isn't just fetching eye candy, seeing as it contains thanklessly credible performances from all that help spearhead the charge.  Felicity Jones is quietly moving as her mother that's deteriorating by the day, but nevertheless tries to look confident and poised to her worried son.  Toby Kebbel's father absconds away from deadbeat dad movie stereotypes by being a kind and considerate soul to his depressed son.  A lesser screenplay would have made him a one note loser, but Kebbel crafts a touching portrait of a worried man that's simply trying to do the best for his son under dire circumstances. 

Then, of course, there's Lewis McDougall himself, who has to go on a very difficult emotional gauntlet with his character in terms of his whole arc in the story.  The fact that he occupies multiple scenes in the film with the likes of the monster and still somehow comes off as a credibly lost and disillusioned boy looking for sense in his senseless world is a testament to his stellar performance.  The one performance weak spot in A MONSTER CALLS is with Weaver, who adorns herself with a rather feebly executed British accent that never quite rivals Kevin Costner's pathetic Robin Hood inflections, but remains an obtrusive distraction in the film.  Yet, Weaver's character is afforded more depth that helps erode such performance hiccups, seeing as she - like Connor - is on her own path of dealing with the paralyzing fear of losing a loved one.  Weaver is actually quite strong in a few of the movie's key dramatic scenes that involve stillness and silence, during which time she lets body language and expressions of traumatizing pain do all the talking. 

Considering its fantastical and out-there premise, A MONSTER CALLS is far more moving and thematically provocative than it has any business being.  It reaches a crescendo during its gut wrenchingly sad climax that will have many an audience member grabbing for tissues.  Having said that, A MONSTER CALLS never feels sanctimoniously preachy or unforgivably manipulative with its story of a boy that tries to find solace in knowing that his time with his mother is indeed limited.  While watching it, I found myself thinking a lot about THE BFG from earlier this year, which was superficially similar in terms of being a story about a child and her larger than life companion.  Bayona clearly beats Spielberg at his own game here, seeing as it's the kind of intelligently rendered and dramatically impactful fable that I wanted THE BFG to be.  That, and the truths that A MONSTER CALLS speaks towards about the fragility of life and accepting loss makes it stand far apart from other witless fantasies that are only concerned with action and spectacle.  

 

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