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A Monster Calls (Movie Review)

A Monster Calls (Movie Review)
12.20.2016by: Jake Dee
8 10

PLOT: In order to help cope with his mother's terminal illness, a lonely young boy is visited every night by a therapeutic tree-monster with life lessons to impart.

REVIEW: A third time is most certainly a charm for talented Spanish director J.A. Bayona, whom, after helming two diametrically disparate but equally entertaining genre-tinged thrillers in THE ORPHANAGE (2007) and THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012) - now echoes the weepy and wistful tone, tenor and temperament of the former in his new feature A MONSTER CALLS, a deeply moving and life-affirming children's horror-fable that opens wide January 6th. With award-worthy craftsmanship across the board, a highly imaginative story and a breakout performance by youngster Lewis MacDougall, A MONSTER CALLS isn't just a multimedia marvel, it's universal message of searching inward to find inner-strength in the face of great tumult and turmoil is one that will likely ring meaningful in all those who see it. We urge you to do so, as A MONSTER CALLS is a truly touching and towering cinematic triumph!

Conor O'Malley (MacDougall) is a lonely, friendless young boy who's often bullied and teased at school. Armed with an artistic soul, he spends most of his time either lost in reverie or buried deep in his own imaginative drawings. His mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is stricken with a terminal illness, which seems to get worse with each passing day. Sad and dejected, Conor has nowhere to turn. His estranged father (Toby Kebbell), residing in Los Angeles, rarely visits. And Conor's uptight grandma (Sigourney Weaver) is too strict and controlling to offer any sort of solace. Then, one evening while drawing in his bedroom, Conor is visited by a giant anthropomorphic yew Tree-Monster (Liam Neeson) with glowing yellow eyes and a gravel voice. Frightened at first, Conor soon notices a recurring theme. The Tree-Monster pays a visit every night at 12:07 on the dot, doing so not to terrify the young boy, but to impart somewhat veiled life-lessons. Through these visits, however directly or indirectly, Conor will learn to cope with everything that ails his life...the bullying, the loneliness, his father's absence, mother's illness, all of it.

And things begin to turn as a result. As his mum's condition worsens, his father shows up to help console Conor, his grandma begins to slightly loosen up. But it's the daily encounters with the Tree-Monster that begins to make a profound alteration in the fiber of Conor's being. In calling the movie a multimedia marvel above, it's due to two or three wonderfully realized watercolor animation sequences - unlike any seen before - that have a lyrically poetic quality about them, particularly in the way Conor begins to understand the nature of life...the fragility, the impermanence, the ability to grow through pain, etc. See, these are teaching moments the Tree-Monster divulges to the heartbroken young boy, and the more he learns, the better he's able to cope with the all encompassing grief. And the key here is Liam Neeson. We can recognize the deep gravelly voice as Liam's almost instantly, but there's a small picture frame in the background of one or two shots in the film that depict the actor himself (Neeson that is) to be Lizzie's own father.

This subtle clue leads to a powerfully emotive revelation in the end of the film. We won't spoil it for you, but the position taken is a rather emboldening and uplifting one. At the heart of A MONSTER CALLS is the ubiquitous lesson that one's genetic makeup is not, nor should be ever considered to be, limited to the physical. The movie seems to say that one's soul and spirit is too attributed to the generational. That is, one can find the ability to heal themselves from all the heartache and uncontrollable pain by precisely looking inward. The answers are already within you, most likely passed down from your parents, their parents, their parents' parents, and so on. It may sound trite for older cynics, but for a movie clearly aimed at the impressionably bright-eyed PG-13 crowd, it's an undeniably strong idea to instill in young ones. Of course, all this is done under the guise of a harrowing fable in what can be considered horror-light. Light in that it isn't too scary, even for kids, but also in terms of how something so dark and sinister as illness can also lead to internal enlightenment in the end. And because this notion is handled so deftly and delicately without being too preachy or too maudlin only strengthens the message.

Look, A MONSTER CALLS isn't a film for the hardened horror fanatic. It is, however, a movie for fans of fantastically imaginative, high quality cinema. Thankfully, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Even more grateful we ought to be for the breakout turn of young Lewis MacDougall, on who's slight underdeveloped shoulders this movie sturdily rests. So often a child actor in movies can make or break the overall experience, and here, MacDougall has the ability to not only go toe-to-toe with acting heavyweights like Jones, Kebbell, Neeson and Weaver, he emotes with requisite pathos required to elicit the desired response. With a lesser performance from a lesser actor, the film would suffer mightily. Luckily, Bayona cast wisely and allowed MacDougall to play all the notes needed to weight the film down with just the right amount of emotional heft. For a movie about a Tree-Monster, it's surprisingly not too sappy, and neither is too apathetic to go unrelated altogether.

The short and simple? If You dug what J.A. Bayona was able to do with THE ORPHANAGE a decade ago, no matter your current age, you're likely to enjoy the hell out of A MONSTER CALLS.

Extra Tidbit: A MONSTER CALLS hits select theaters December 23rd before going wide January 6th.
Source: AITH

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