Movie Review: A Monster Calls

(l-r:) Conor (Lewis MacDougall) shadowed by The Monster (performed/voiced by Liam Neeson) in "A Monster Calls," a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

(l-r:) Conor (Lewis MacDougall) shadowed by The Monster (performed/voiced by Liam Neeson) in “A Monster Calls,” a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

When A Monster Calls … is it safe to answer?

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

The path from childhood to maturity never runs smooth. But this one is riddled with sharp thorns, sinister branches and a monstrous 40-foot tree. It seems that if a child can overcome obstacles like these, he just may be home free.

Reminiscent of this year’s The BFG and 1999’s The Iron Giant, with stories entailing burgeoning relationships between young children and hulking creatures, A Monster Calls brings a unique take in its construction. Set in a rural village in the U.K., half of the film is a classic fairytale, a fantastical fable depicted in unique animation that reflects rudimentary drawings come to life. The other half consists of a serious drama with its young protagonist (Lewis MacDougall’s 12-year-old Conor) forced to contend with school bullies, an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and absentee father (Tony Kebbell), all the while facing a parent’s impending death. Caught in a limbo of denial and resignation, Conor is forced to watch as his beloved mother (Felicity Jones’ Lizzie) slowly withers away from the ravages of cancer.

(l-r): Lewis MacDougall), Felicity Jones in "A Monster Calls," a Focus Features release. Credit: Quim Vives/Focus Features

(l-r): Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones in “A Monster Calls,” a Focus Features release. Credit: Quim Vives/Focus Features

Enter the shocking distraction that occurs at the witching hour of 12:07 a.m., when a gargantuan yew tree (a terrific animatronic 2D/3D amalgam voiced by Liam Neeson) pays Conor the first of multiple visits, howling fables turned life lessons at the boy. Frightened – and initially resistant – Lewis eventually realizes that the Monster is his own personal timber-ey teacher.

With its extraordinarily creative visuals representing art itself, the opening sequence is mesmerizing. Hard pencil sketches metamorphose into fluid hints of the story to come, emphasizing the elements of fable, as well as the inherent artistry that binds mother and son.

However, even given the affecting performances of the lead actors, it is the eponymous creature in A Monster Calls that is the most engaging aspect of the film. Its initial birth from hardwood to animatronic creature is magnificent to behold: the tree roots violently rip out of the earth, transforming into massive, human-esque limbs, as the barks mutates into a spectacular musculature. The face is a craggy interpretation of Liam Neeson’s features (notwithstanding the burning red eyes), and is accompanied by his amplified roaring speech.

Director J.A. Bayona on the set of "A Monster Calls," a Focus Features release. Credit: Quim Vives/Focus Features

Director J.A. Bayona on the set of “A Monster Calls,” a Focus Features release. Credit: Quim Vives/Focus Features

Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage) chose an impressive team to create this wondrous and woody Goliath, namely production designer Eugenio Caballero and make-up artists Montse Ribé and David Martí (Oscar winners for Pan’s Labyrinth). The digital post-production, led by visual and special effects masters Félix Bergés and Pau Costa, took over a year to complete.

The creature itself is inspired by the pre-Roman Empire legend of “The Green Man.” With its face encircled by components of nature (trees, leaves, vines), The Green Man signifies growth and rebirth. Hence, the Monster is a fitting escort to lead Conor out of the dark, unknowable wilderness and into the light.

Unfortunately, the film founders with Patrick Ness’ inflated script and overlong scenes that beg for clarity and sharper editing. A third act scene in which the fractious relationship between Grandma and Conor turns harmonious is unnecessarily clunky. When Grandma states that the one thing she and her rebellious grandson have in common is Lizzie — her daughter and his mother — this is not some surprising revelation. It’s an obvious fact.

Additionally, the slapped-on cheer of the reunion scenes between Conor and his visiting father all but stops the movie’s momentum. And creates a bothersome wrinkle. Having divorced Conor’s mother Lizzie some time ago, now committed to his work and new family in America, it’s soon made apparent that Dad has no intention of taking his soon-to-be motherless son with him. If he loves Conor so much, why hand him over to the frosty grandmother? Why not take custody of his soon-to-be motherless son who is frantically begging his dad to be with him? Without the story offering a substantial reason, the father’s casual abandoning of his child is inexplicably harsh. No wonder the kid has to turn to a cranky, oversized tree for a splinter of paternal love.

Sigourney Weaver as Grandma in "A Monster Calls," a Focus Features release. Credit: Quim Vives/Focus Features

Sigourney Weaver as Grandma in “A Monster Calls,” a Focus Features release. Credit: Quim Vives/Focus Features

Never having portrayed a grandmother on screen before, Ms. Weaver is beautifully moving as she transitions from a self-involved career woman to her daughter’s and grandson’s caretaker, softening by increments. The always superb Felicity Jones breaks our hearts, and young Lewis MacDougall is marvelous as the angry, hurt little boy who is forced to grow up much too soon.

Director Bayona proved his merit with 2012’s tragic family drama, The Impossible. But here, perhaps weighed down by the sheer tonnage of the visual effects as well as Ness’ flawed screenplay, it seems that he couldn’t quite see the forest for the trees.

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Rating on a scale of 5 Learning Trees: 3.5

Release date: December 23, 2016 (ltd.)
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Screenplay and novel written by: Patrick Ness
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Tony Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall and Liam Neeson
Running Time: 108 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Here’s the trailer for A Monster Calls:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.