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Review: A Monster Calls

January 6, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

a-monster-calls-posterWith undertones of an Amblin production from the 1980s, A Monster Calls is the rarest of things nowadays.  It’s a family film that is as much for older kids as it is for adults, and is unafraid of going dark and exploring sensitive themes involving the death of a parent and childhood grief.

Adapting the bestselling young adult novel of the same name by Patrick Ness, based on an idea being developed by children’s author Siobhan Dowd before her death, director J.A. Bayona has delivered a beautifully made and often thrilling film that hits with deep emotion and unfolds with arresting visual style.

The film opens with young Conor O’Malley’s (Lewis MacDougall) terrifying recurrent nightmare where his mother (Felicity Jones), who is dying of cancer, is falling into a sinkhole at the cemetery, and he is barely able to hold on to her hand.

Bullied at school, and being sent to live with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) after having been all but abandoned by his father (Toby Kebbell), Conor is lonely and struggling to cope with the imminent death of his beloved mother.  Then he gets a midnight visit from a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who vows to tell him three stories, if Conor promises to tell the fourth story once he is done.  As the monster’s visits bring about increasing destruction, which starts to spill over into the real world, Conor is forced to confront his deep emotional pain and come to terms with mortality.

These are dark themes that the story explores, but the film’s approach often evokes visual wonder as much as it does heartbreak.  The titular monster is impressively brought to life through a seamless mix of animatronics and computer animation, with his branches, fiery eyes and highly expressive facial features making him a striking big screen wonder that is impossible to look away from.  The stories that the monster tells all hold deeper allegorical meaning, and unfold through several beautifully rendered animated sequences that provide some of the most visually stunning moments in the film.

Also excellent are the performances.  Lewis MacDougal carries it all with an emotional maturity that seems well beyond his years, and Liam Neeson’s gravelly voice work strikes the perfect balance between tough and melancholic, adding another layer of depth and a sense of genuine humanity to his effects-driven character.  Felicity Jones delivers a moving supporting role, with the actress appearing gaunt and frail throughout much of her screen time, while also portraying the quiet strength her character retains while staring down a terminal illness and saying goodbye to her son.

But this is no mere “disease of the week” melodrama.  It’s much more honest than that.  The film forces us to confront the dark emotions that come part and parcel with the grieving process, never shying away from the rage and ugliness of pain or the anger that can come from losing someone you love.  The story unfolds with an undercurrent of aching sadness, building towards the cathartic release of the devastating final few scenes, which hit us with an incredible impact.  I was left sobbing by the end of it.

This is a family film with painful but important messages to impart, and a tale about childhood that is just as valuable and emotional for adults as it is for kids, if not even more so.  Enthralling in terms of storytelling, and darkly beautiful in its construction, A Monster Calls is a haunting and deeply moving film, that uses its fantastical elements to bravely address the realities of grief head on.

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