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Movie Review: #AMonsterCalls

The well-intentioned A Monster Calls is a horribly-flawed Oscar wanna-be.

Review by Matt Cummings

For those of us who have witnessed the premature death of a parent, the story behind A Monster Calls should be a cathartic experience. Instead, its dark themes feel way too much for young people to handle and its "seen that before" experience will fall on older deaf ears.

A Monster Calls tells the story of 12 year-old Conor (a thoroughly entertaining Lewis MacDougall) who is befriended by an ancient living tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). The only reason why this incredible event is happening is that Connor is witnessing the slow death of his mother (a merely adequate Felicity Jones), while his separated father (a completely misused Tony Kebbell) visits from far-away LA. Conor is tormented by a terrible dream of losing his mother, which sets the tree off to teach the boy a lesson about letting go. Through a series of three beautifully-rendered watercolor-styled stories, Conor learns the value of loss and the tough truth that some things are simply beyond his control. Conor and his icy grandmother (a horribly-cast Sigourney Weaver) must learn to live with the knowledge that mum's illness won't end well, while the boy is forced to deal with the nightmare that proves far worse than merely foretelling his mother's fate.

Director J.A. Bayona gifts A Monster Calls with stunning CGI beauty. He outfits the tree with spindly branches that leap out like Groot's in Guardians of the Galaxy, and its dark eyes perfectly match the tone of Actor Liam Neeson's voice. He's a meaner version of Groot and much more like the Ents from Lord of the Rings franchise. But Bayona seems to serve at least three different story masters with his film, each of whom demands their story be told with equal attention. The result is that the tales of son & mother, the magical ent, and Conor's personal relationships with his grandmother and father never grow beyond their most basic premises. The tree's true role in Conor's family isn't well-revealed, the father-son story is poorly executed, and the (most powerful) mom/son plot is cast aside in favor of rich (but hollow) CGI.

A Monster Calls is also an amazingly confusing and unrealistic film, not in how it displays Conor's fantasy world, but for the rules in which this universe exists. Bayona paints too broad a brush stroke in explaining key elements of the film, such as an important series of reveals near film's end involving photographs and a hospital visit. I'm being vague here in case you desire to see this, but trust me when I say that you'll have to make some big jumps to get all of what Bayona is trying to sell. Monster's script by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the book) can't keep our attention once the first two stories are told by The Monster, who comes off at once as a savage brute and then as a pushy psychologist determined to tell Conor how to process his mum's imminent death. People process death in a myriad of ways, but not even The Monster's analogous stories would make sense to most 12-year-olds. To most, the death of their mother would make any of them inconsolable, even if a magical tree appeared out of nowhere. A Monster Calls asks us to accept huge truths while giving us none of the payoff for accepting such a bargain.

So much of A Monster Calls feels manufactured, from the designer sets where everything is in its place to the actors who remain in tightly-controlled environments instead of being given the chance to branch out (no pun) their character's emotions. Ness' rather wooden script (pun intended) never humanizes into anything beyond the messily-stated message that it's OK for Conor to grieve, but by the time we get to the tear-jerker ending we're just ready for the story to end. Moreover, those reveals keep coming right up to the end, but the one question that's never answered is why The Monster gets involved in the first place. Yet another hastily-conceived reveal attempts to clear that up, but the Ent has been alive for thousands of years and yet this is the moment it arises. Sure, the tree's true relationship with Conor is supposed to be the magic element that ties everything together, but it's hard to accept what happens for several reasons.

Among them is the lack of real danger against the boy, as there's some sort of nebulous punishment if Conor doesn't share his nightmares with The Monster after he shares three analogous stories with him. And while they are all designed to help him process his deeply-buried grief, these are Conor's least important worries throughout A Monster Calls. He's routinely beset by a nearly homoerotic bully, craves the closeness of his distant father but hates his grandmother enough to rage on her sitting room, and (oh by the way) must deal with his mother's impending death. The way that (finally) arrives is teary enough, but it could have been so much more had it settled on fewer stories.

A Monster Calls could have been an immediate Oscar candidate, had Bayona stuck to two of the three stories (sans father). Its potentially powerful themes of love and family should have formed its backbone, where what we get is a story that serves too many masters and fails to make even a massive living tree feel more menacing (or wise) than it looks.

A Monster Calls is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images and has a runtime of 108 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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