November 17, 2017

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A Tween and His Tree | “A Monster Calls” Movie Review

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Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls (José Haro/Focus Features)

Is there room for one more lumbering, hulking creature in the multiplex this year? The answer is a definite yes.

Following in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg’s reverent and rambling take on Roald Dahl’s The BFG, which featured a rather endearing and loyal Big Friendly Giant, Spanish director J.A. Bayona unleashes a destructive, tough-talking, and tale-spinning colossal sprung out of an ancient yew tree and Patrick Ness’s 2011 novel A Monster Calls. (If there were ever a matchup between the humble BFG and Ness’s towering monstrosity, there would be no contest; the latter takes no prisoners.)

One difference between the two movies is that Monster will appeal to slightly older middle grade viewers. Another is that this is the most fluid page-to-screen adaptation in quite some time, owing in large part to Ness writing the screenplay. He cuts no corners, making barely noticeable modifications to his plot or characters. The movie revels in its British gothic ambience. The only softening colors come from the overcast skies of northern England. However, the bond between the lead character and his mother grounds and propels the narrative. Though it is a tale of loss, it’s more buoyant than bleak, thanks to the top-notch cast, especially juvenile lead Lewis MacDougall and his preternaturally mature performance.

One night, a little after midnight, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley is woken up by earth-shaking thuds caused by the thrashings of a giant, who appears in the form of a tree, with roots for legs and branches for arms. The creature growls (voiced by Liam Neeson and brought to life by CGI) an announcement: it has arrived to tell Conor three tales, but the boy will have to tell a fourth, which must be based on the truth.

Forget the monster. Real life, as depicted here, is scarier. At school, Conor keeps his head down, buried in his sketchbook, but is bullied by a trio of classmates. At home, he takes on the caregiving duties for his mother, who has cancer and has not responded to chemotherapy. (Dad left long ago, settling in America with a new family.) Still more bad news arrives: Mum will need to go into the hospital for a new round of treatments, and Conor will have to live with his frosty and fussy grandmother, played by Sigourney Weaver, whose haughty manner is spot-on—her British accent less so.

At first, Conor assumes that he has imagined the eerie nighttime encounter, but the next night, at exactly 12:07 a.m., the wooden giant makes another scenery-smashing entrance: time for the first tale, which does not have a happy ending. Changing up the film’s palette, the unfolding fable of betrayal and deceptive appearances is told in splashes of watercolor, recalling the striking simplicity of 1970s Japanese anime, with a touch of Grimm. Although the monster’s mission may seem benevolent, it also encourages Conor’s violent and destructive side. (Don’t try this at home, kids.) Their meet-ups take on a form of unorthodox self-help, yet Conor still refuses to acknowledge the reason for the caller’s sinister storytimes. (Even the monster, though well-meaning, comes off as an unrelenting bully. There’s no sugar to go with its therapeutic medicine.)

Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones (Focus Features)

Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones (Focus Features)

Ness has filled in a few elliptical inferences from the novel, mainly dealing with Conor’s mother, and the plot changes actually add more resonance to the central mother/son relationship. If anything, the novel’s disturbing elements are more pronounced; on screen, the bullying of Conor is more brutal. And perhaps the biggest departure is the portrayal of the mom. Much is left to readers’ imagination regarding her physicality—for example, her age—so the casting of Felicity Jones in the role adds poignancy and follows in the tradition of doomed young women on film: Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment or, going way back, Ali MacGraw in Love Story. It may be jarring for viewers to see this film after witnessing Jones’s gung ho galactic warrior in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

“Humans are complicated beasts,” says the monster, but Ness and the filmmakers have stuck to the basics of its richly layered source. Like the determined midnight caller, they have stayed on course in their mission. The book’s fans will be more than pleased by this moving and menacing adaptation.

Directed by J.A. Bayona
108 minutes
Rated PG-13 (appropriately)

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Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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