“What shall I destroy next?” asks the giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). “Break the windows,” replies Conor (Lewis MacDougall). “Break them yourself!” answers back the monster who’s helping the young boy deal with his mother’s serious illness in the dramatic fantasy film, A Monster Calls.
12-year-old Conor is going through the most difficult and sad time in his life. His mother (Felicity Jones), who he’s extremely close to, is fighting a losing battle with her illness and he’s forced to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who’s re-entered his life to help out his mother while she’s being cared for in the hospital. Conor’s grandmother is a tough and fairly unsympathetic woman who’s not a good fit for the young and artistic lad. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Conor is also being bullied by an older boy who enjoys using poor Conor’s face as a punching bag.
One night before Conor’s mom has to go back into the hospital, they sit together and watch the classic 1933 film King Kong off an old projector. Later while he’s in his room drawing (the young man is a very talented artist just like his mother), a giant tree monster comes to his window and reveals he has three stories to tell him. After he has told him his stories, Conor must tell him a story and it needs to be the truth. Conor, justifiably, doesn’t believe the tree monster is real and is convinced he’s dreaming. However, when the monster reaches in and picks him up and pulls him outside (much the same way King Kong picked up Fay Wray in the movie), Conor starts to believe maybe it’s not just a dream.
Conor is still hesitant to listen and believes stories won’t help him, but the monster is insistent that the boy must listen to him. So begins Conor’s new friendship with the giant tree monster who it seems has come to help guide the young boy and teach him about real courage, faith, expressing anger, love, and truth.
Poignant, visually dynamic, and with a strong performance by newcomer Lewis MacDougall, A Monster Calls will likely have a difficult time connecting to a younger audience and may even be too heavy and somber for some adults. The fantasy melodrama is sure to leave audiences teary-eyed and, possibly, depressed, so those who do give it a whirl should be prepared for a darker journey than displayed in the film’s trailers.
Liam Neeson delivers a memorable performance bringing the tree monster to life by not just giving it his voice but also via the motion capture process. Intimidating and at times likeable, Neeson makes the tree monster both a friend and teacher to young Conor.
Lewis MacDougall is extremely impressive as Conor, wonderfully capturing all the pain, sadness, awkwardness, fear, guilt, and anger the young man is struggling with as he attempts to come to terms and accept what’s happening to the person he loves most in the world: his mother. Felicity Jones steals almost every scene she’s in as Conor’s young mom who loves her son and is trying to protect him from the harsh reality of her fate while struggling to last as long as possible so she can leave behind a few more special, loving memories.
Especially touching are the scenes of mom and son watching King Kong together and those in her hospital room where she not only forgives him for breaking his grandmother’s things but tells him if he needs to break things to feel better, then he should. Jones is truly one of the best actresses of her generation.
The special effects in A Monster Calls are incredible, including the look and sound of the tree monster. The silhouette-style animation and artwork used to bring the characters in the monster’s three stories to life is stylish and mesmerizing, even though it’s been used effectively before in recent films including in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 while Hermione (Emma Watson) tells the story of three brothers tricking Death.
Unfortunately, first-rate effects and an impressive cast aren’t enough to offset the lack of any real magical, warm, or uplifting moments badly needed to counterbalance all the sadness and tragedy in the film.
Directed By: J.A. Bayona
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2017 (wide)