FILM REVIEW – A MONSTER CALLS. With Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and the voice of Liam Neeson. Written by Patrick Ness. Directed by J.A. Bayona. Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images. 108 minutes.
Every once in a while, a film comes along that makes you wonder if the people making it had any idea who would be their intended audience. A MONSTER CALLS is such a peculiar movie that one can imagine how people relating to the tragic situation of the story might connect with it, but beyond that it’s a tough sell. Like the much sunnier fantasy “The BFG,” this is a movie that is likely to go by unnoticed.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is an English schoolboy with a lot of problems. His father lives in the U.S. and is largely absent. His mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. In school he is picked on by bullies. He knows he will end up with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), a stern, cold woman. This is how we first meet him.
One night a tree outside transforms into a giant monster (voice of Liam Neeson). The monster tells Conor that he will tell him three stories over subsequent visits, and Conor must then tell him a story. The stories, presented fancifully, are fairy tale-like, but turn out to be dark and tragic. There are no happy endings. Conor is forced to confront that with his beloved mother not long for this world, he’s not going to be getting a happy ending either.
Patrick Ness adapted his highly regarded book and it’s likely this conceit works much better on the printed page than as a movie. On screen it comes across as contrived, since whether we believe in the monster as literally real or simply a figment of Conor’s imagination, this is all an exercise in getting him to confront his anger and grief.
That’s all well and good, but who is the audience for this message? Conor is 12, and it’s hard to believe much of the pre-teen set wants to see a downer movie like this. For that matter are adults clamoring to see a movie about a child facing the death of his mother, told in a series of stylized allegories? Perhaps thereapists will find a use for the movie in getting patients to open up about painful things in their lives but that’s not the same thing as saying, “That’s entertainment.”
The cast certainly tries their best. The scenes between MacDougall and Jones are touching, and Weaver plays the grandmother as someone finding her own way of avoiding facing the truth. Neeson lends his voice to the monster making him powerful and a bit frightening, yet not so much that we don’t listen to what he has to say. Visually it’s a dark film, as befits the material, but mixing up live action, CGI for the monster, and animation for the stories (resembling paper cutouts more than cartoons) shows the thought that went into the film.
Unfortunately, what should have been thought about was whether this was a film worth making in the first place. “A Monster Calls,” to be sure, but will anyone care to answer?•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.