Movie Review: A Monster Calls

A tale of young boy's escape into a fantasy world offer a mixed bag

A Monster Calls
Directed by J. A. Bayona
With Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson

Losing a parent to illness is difficult for a child. A Monster Calls, based on the book by Patrick Ness, addresses the issue in a fantasy framework. The result is a blend of tense family melodrama mixed in between scenes of a CGI monster tree that nobody but the boy can see and some decent animation of the tree's tales that he tells the child.

It is an odd project. The fantasy elements are a plus, and the family melodrama is well-acted and credible but predictable. A downside is the scenes of bullying in a school, which are on the cliched side. Virtually every film that touches on a school setting these days has the exact same set of scenes about bullying.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O'Malley, the boy at the center of the plot. His mother, Lizzie Clayton, is sick and getting sicker. The illness isn't named but from the way it is depicted onscreen it looks like a form of cancer.

Conor's father is not present at home. Stepping in to look after Conor, is his maternal grandmother, Mrs Clayton, played by Sigourney Weaver. She is strict and humorless, in contrast to Lizzie, who was of an artistic temperament. The grandmother's house is like a museum, where nothing can be touched.

The reality-based part of the film is par for course of the young mother with a fatal illness genre. Worsening haircuts and pasty makeup show the progress of the unnamed disease. Family members voice optimism while their expressions say the opposite.

The fantasy elements are where the film branches a bit into new territory. A giant yew tree comes to life and stomps through the area, coming for Conor and talking to him in an ominous voice filled with the threat of doom. It is Liam Neeson's voice. Except as a voice, and briefly as a photo on a shelf, he does not appear in the film.

The monster seems as if it will destroy Conor and everything in the surroundings, but that is not the case. The monster very oddly just wants to tell stories. Some of these are illustrated as watercolor cartoons, and on their own are quite attractive.

They aren't the standard fairytales. There is a catch to them, and the morals of the fables are supposed to offer Conor some insight.

A Monster Calls turns into an odd kettle of fish, cinematically. It can be seen as a tale of a boy faced with nothing but bad options escaping into a growing fantasy world so strong that he loses track of reality. And the film suggests this is a good thing.

Viewers can take a less harsh view and see the monster as a protector that the boy needs, and accept a bit of a supernatural explanation the film hints at. But an angry and destructive thousand-year-old tree is not exactly a fairy godmother. The audience really has to suspend their disbelief a lot to accept the premise.

And the question of who the audience is also pops up. Watching someone's mother waste away is not exactly the sort of entertainment most kids in their teens go seeking. And the fantasy elements might be a bit too much for older people.

The story is competently made but like most films aimed at young audiences, in the last act it throws away character development for an orgy of computer special effects. The watercolor animation was much more effective than the CGI.

A Monster Calls falls into the “nice try” category. It has good things, and puts a new spin on some old themes, but that isn't enough to make it must-see entertainment.

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