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‘A Monster Calls’ (review)

Produced by Belén Atienza,
Mitch Horwits, Jonathan King
Screenplay by Patrick Ness
Based on A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Directed by J. A. Bayona
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones,
Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall

 

The story arc of the youth who must grow up too fast and loses a portion of their childhood is an old standard. And yet, in J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls there are at least a few twists and visual delights to make the predictable journey worth having.

The darkness and intimacy of the story is certainly worthy of the PG-13 rating, and well-adjusted pre-teens will find meaning in it just as much as the adults that go on their own.

The movie follows the journey of 12-year-old Conor as he struggles to come to terms with his true feelings about his mother’s terminal illness.

His turmoil awakens an ancient yew tree monster residing in the cemetery behind his home. It tells Conor that it will share three tales, and in return Conor will eventually tell his own truth.

From setting to costuming to general tone, this film is rather bleak. Never is a sky sunny or warm, only overcast and dreary. Every set is dressed deliberately and imparts the weight of watching a play rather than a movie. As much as this reflects the emotional state of our protagonist, one wishes that Bayona had included a few more scenes showing memories of happier times to remind the audience of what Conor has lost over the course of his mother’s sickness.

But perhaps this is not the choice of the director as much as having author Patrick Ness adapt his own book into the screenplay. For instance, there is a small storyline regarding Conor’s remarried father coming back to visit that could have easily been cut down more in the movie version with allusions rather than straight screen time.

This occurred in several more instances, where the set up for a scene or an emotion was heavy-handed and showed the touch of an author versus a practiced screenwriter.

The few scenes of color and movement are brought to us by the animation studio Headless (currently finishing the Guillermo del Toro Netflix series Trollhunters). Their 2D/3D storybook illustrations breathe life and beauty into the tales of the tree without fleshing them out enough to create distracting auxiliary characters.

Though the tree monster is a well-done character reminiscent of a mash-up between Groot and the trees from The Lord of the Rings for most of the movie, there are a few scenes where physical props were used. Bayona’s decision to build actual versions rather than lean on CGI for the scenes near the end enhanced those moments by making everything in the room truly real. Even amazingly rendered graphics can be a distraction during highly serious or emotional scenes, and though it was undoubtedly more expensive the experience paid off.

Outside of these forays into wonderment, the focus is very much on the real life that Conor cannot escape. At school he is plagued by bullies and at home his terse grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) rarely manages to be on the same page as him though both are struggling. In his first leading cinematic role, Lewis MacDougall carries the film with his anger and frustration at Conor’s inability to change his mother’s situation or deal with the overwhelming distress it is causing him.

Felicity Jones shows a quiet but fading strength as the mother while Sigourney Weaver is a bit one-sided playing the stern grandmother, but is given the opportunity to grow her range towards the end.

As the voice of the tree monster, Liam Neeson is a treat who adds depth and gravitas. He truly sounds as wise and old as the most ancestral trees in the forest would be if given the power of speech.

While not a choice for an uplifting night at the movies, A Monster Calls is nonetheless an appealing and deeply emotional film that leaves the audience thinking of loss, grief, and the complexities of coming to terms with unexpressed feelings as time grows short.

 

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