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Review: A Monster Calls (2016)

A Monster Calls (2016)

Directed by: J.A. Bayona

Premise: Based on the book by Patrick Ness. A British schoolboy (Lewis MacDougall) copes with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness by conjuring a giant tree monster (Liam Neeson). The giant tells the boy three tales to help him understand the world.

What Works: Fairy tales and fantasy stories, especially when they appear in motion pictures, usually reduce the world into simplistic conflicts and reassure the audience that everything will work out in the end. Movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Lord of the Rings present good and evil through clearly demarcated characters and the former vanquishes the latter in a way that is comforting. A Monster Calls is a different kind of picture, one more in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth. For one, the movie is aware of its own fantasy; the tree monster is the boy’s imaginary friend and he talks the young man through his problems by telling him stories. The movie visualizes the way in which imagination and fairytales are important for people, especially children, as they give feelings and anxieties tangible form so that we can deal with them. But further still, A Monster Calls allows for complexity. The giant tells a series of fairy tales that at first appear to be standard fantasy fare but ultimately require the boy to broaden his thinking. He beings to understand that the world is a difficult, nuanced, and ambiguous place and that life is not always fair. Also impressive is the way the stories align with the stages of grief. As is established early in the picture, the boy’s mother is dying and he gradually comes to grips with that truth. From one end of this movie to another, the young protagonist works through denial, anger, and negotiation before finally arriving at acceptance and the monster’s stories allow the boy to face his fears. As a result, this film taps into fears and emotions that cut across the audience, regardless of our age. That makes this film very powerful and it tugs at the audience’s heartstrings. This is a movie that is bound to make viewers cry but A Monster Calls earns those tears without being overly manipulative or contrived. A Monster Calls has a set of terrific central performances. Lewis MacDougall plays the young boy and he is very good in a difficult role. He’s intelligent without being overly precocious which makes the character engaging and authentic. Felicity Jones is cast as the mother and she is also quite good as is Toby Kebbell as the estranged father. Jones is sickly without hamming it up and Kebbell is a flawed parent who hasn’t made the best decisions but isn’t a villain either. Also impressive is Liam Neeson’s vocal performance as the monster. He is menacing but there is also an understated paternal quality that makes the giant more than just a CGI creature. A Monster Calls also has some marvelous fantasy sequences and the movie transitions smoothly between real and imaginary spaces.

What Doesn’t: Some of the promotional materials for A Monster Calls make the film look like it is a feel-good family title like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial or The Iron Giant but it actually has more in common with films like The Fox and the Houndand Bridge to Terabithia. That’s not a bad thing to be; those kinds of stories are valuable especially in the way they provide a framework for younger viewers and their parents to broach difficult subjects. But the movie is geared toward a slightly older audience (it’s rated PG-13) than the marketing campaign or the age of its young protagonist might suggest. The one major fault of A Monster Calls is the casting of Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother. Weaver is required to do a British accent and it never sounds convincing. However, she is otherwise quite good in the role and her performance adds to the complexity of the film.

Bottom Line: A Monster Calls is an exceptional film, on par with Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (although it is more accessible than the 2009 picture). It’s a sensitive work that addresses the topics that the most revered young adult stories deal with but are all too often ignored by mainstream family movies.   

Episode: #630 (January 15, 2017)