Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, and the voice of Liam Neeson
Rated PG-13 for Thematic Content and Some Scary Images
One can make many claims about "A Monster Calls." Weird, bizarre, depressing, hard to understand. All true. One cannot claim that this movie plays is safe. "A Monster Calls" is not an easy film to experience or even conceive of. It relies heavily on metaphor, intuition and subtext. The elements don't always gel, but the end result is worth experiencing. Perhaps more than once.
Conor (MacDougall) is not a happy child. His mother Lizzie (Jones) is dying, his father (Kebbell) is lives halfway around the world, and the prospect of living with his grandmother (Weaver) is not a pleasant one. One night at 12:07 a.m., the yew tree in the nearby graveyard comes to life as a monster. The Monster (Neeson) tells Conor that he will return to tell him three stories and then Conor must then tell him one in return.
It goes without saying that this is about Conor coming to terms with his mother's impending death. Death of a loved one is not an easy thing to experience, especially at such a young age, but it's a path we must all take before we take it ourselves. Director J.A. Bayona shows this process through it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Putting together "child hero" and "fantasy" gives off the impression that this is a kid-friendly film. Sort of a Harry Potter meets Willy Wonka kind of thing. That's not the case here. This is a dark film that deals with heavy themes like grief, loss, murder and moral ambiguity. Plus there are some sequences that will get the nape hairs on end for even the most stalwart of viewers. Tread carefully when considering showing this to children.
The acting is effective. Lewis MacDougall, coming off a small role in the bomb of a Peter Pan prequel, is sold in the lead but lacks screen presence. It's a good acting job but he has trouble holding the camera's attention. Felicity Jones sparkles as Lizzie, who is filled with life and love even as she approaches death. Sigourney Weaver is miscast; although she ably handles the heavy drama (not one of the actress's strong suits) and sports a consistent British accent, she seems wrong for the role of the brittle, aloof grandmother. Weaver projects a natural warmth that's at odds with the character she plays. Liam Neeson gives us a monster who is far more complicated than he initially appears to be.
This is a visually dazzling movie that, unlike the "Transformers" movies, uses CGI and special effects intelligently. The blending of live action and CGI isn't seamless, but it gets the job done. And the stories that The Monster tells are illustrated in an abstract, water color style that is oh so appealing.
And yet the film never really quite clicks. The heavy emphasis on subtext and audience intuition would be fine if it had a stronger foundation. And the film gets off to a slow start. Once The Monster starts telling his first story, the movie finds its groove.
"A Monster Calls" isn't for everyone. It's a challenging and emotionally draining movie that demands thought. This isn't a dumb popcorn movie. It's much more ambitious. And while it doesn't always work, there's enough good stuff to warrant a rental,.