Monster Calls, A (2016)
Release Date: December 23rd, 2016 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: J.A. Bayona Actors: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Ben Moor, James Melville, Oliver Steer, Dominic Boyle, Jennifer Lim
n the English countryside, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) suffers from regular nightmares, as well as the abusive attention of a bully, Harry (James Melville), and his gang of instigating comrades. But Conor endures these obstacles through constant daydreams, drawing, and an active imagination. When his mother, Elizabeth Clayton (Felicity Jones), brings home his grandfather’s old film projector, he’s able to enjoy movies too – such as “King Kong,” to which he relates as a misunderstood creature that others simply don’t understand.
Late one night, as he sketches in his room, Conor is alerted to the presence of a giant, desiccated, gnarled tree, positioned in a field some distance outside the perimeter of his rather sizable estate. The tree uproots itself, grows appendages of fire contained by twisty roots, and saunters over to Conor’s window. After tearing a whole in the wall and snatching the boy right from his second floor bedroom, the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) proclaims that he will visit Conor again to tell him three stories. When he’s finished, Conor will be forced to tell a fourth – his own revelation about the dark truths behind his recurring nightmares.
The first tale is about a kingdom with a king who lost all three of his sons to giants and dragons. Then, an orphan prince falls for a farmer’s daughter, who is slain by a wicked queen, leading to an uprising by the townspeople and vengeance against the queen – carried out by the tree monster himself. These stories are, of course, fables, which correspond to Conor’s real-life problems, which aren’t just in the forms of fitting in or contending with bullies. His mother is sick and slowly dying (something she doesn’t want to admit, which feels like the true source of all of Conor’s anguish), while his real estate agent grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) intends to take him away to live with her – a proposition most unwelcome, as he views the cold, stern woman (with a museum-like house full of old lady things) as an enemy. And his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in Los Angeles with a new wife, with a small house and limited finances that prevent the youth from relocating to the States to join him.
Though the film tackles weighty subjects concerning mortality, grief, broken homes, and misplaced anger – made more distressing by its presentation from the point of view of a preteen (MacDougall does a splendid job with the material) – its plot isn’t particularly unique. Nor is its utilization of parables and a continual, fluid transition between reality and fantasy. It’s difficult not to immediately note comparisons to “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Fall” (and, to a lesser degree, “Peter Pan” or “The Wizard of Oz”), or the plethora of other pictures to tackle messy divorces (and/or ill parents) involving children, even without elements of vivid fancy.
The look of the film also lacks originality. Liam Neeson lends his absolutely perfect voice to the monster, but its imagery isn’t deserving of his vocal fittingness. As a gargantuan mass of knotty twigs and black bark, the character is little more than a slight deviation from the brittle giant of “The BFG.” His stories are also comparably familiar, shown entirely with computer animation – though done up to look like a cross between watercolors and ink – with striking depth of field. Unfortunately, it’s reminiscent of the style shifts seen in other projects (including a couple of the “Kung Fu Panda” movies and this year’s “Kubo and the Two Strings”) when a flashback or aside is needed to represent a varying level of narrative. And despite some intriguing commentary on selfishness, stubbornness, and the complicated nature of coping with tragedy or despair, it’s not enough to give “A Monster Calls” the individuality it needs to be genuinely powerful.
– Mike Massie