Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review: A Monster Calls

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Although based upon a novel by Patrick Hess, "A Monster Calls" seems just as much influenced by Guillermo del Toro, to whom this film's director, J.A. Bayona, is a protege, of sorts. Blending fantasy with real life trauma, "Monster" is an often powerful film about a young British boy who creates a gigantic tree-like monster in his imagination to help him deal with his mother's wasting away from a disease that is never named, but appears to be cancer.

The boy, named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is loaded down with problems, including that he is shy and a target for bullies, his father (Toby Kebbell) loves him but clearly gives preference to his family abroad in America, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a bit of a task master and it's pretty clear that Conor will end up living with her once his mother is no longer able to care for him and the kid is lonely.

Conor's mother (Felicity Jones) was once an artist and her son has taken up her penchant for drawing, a fact picked up on and used against him by a trio of kids who cruelly torment him at school. One day and shortly after watching "King Kong" with his mother, Conor looks out of his window at the churchyard - about which he often has vividly horrifying dreams - where a large yew tree stands and imagines that it comes to life.

The monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) tells Conor that it will relay to him three stories if the boy will eventually agree to tell a fourth story, that is, to analyze his own nightmares in which he fails to save his mother from the churchyard crumbling into the earth. The stories are relayed mostly through animation and all three confuse the boy as they are tales in which human beings are not portrayed as good or evil, but rather in complex shades of grey.

Although this is a movie in which a young boy submits to a fantasy world to escape his present day reality - similar to del Toro's remarkable "Pan's Labyrinth" in which a young girl flees her horrific existence by creating a series of tests involving fantastical creatures - this is not a movie for kids. "A Monster Calls" is ultimately moving, but it goes to some dark places and deals with subject matter that is, at times, pretty wrenching.

As the film comes to its close, Conor's monster forces the boy to reveal his own truth and, as it turns out, his story involves flaws in his own character that are, similar to the protagonists of the monster's three stories, entirely human. And other than Conor's bully, most of the flawed individuals in the boy's life are not villains as he originally frames them. There's a particularly effective sequence during which he and Weaver's grandmother talk in the car as they are delayed at a train track crossing on the way to the hospital.

Bayona's previous films are the creepy "The Orphanage" and the well-made tsunami drama "The Impossible." Although his latest bears some resemblance to del Toro's work, especially "Pan's Labyrinth," it's an emotionally resonant coming of age story that deftly blends fantasy with human drama in a surprisingly effective manner.

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