**1/2 out of ****
(for thematic content and some scary images)
Released: December 23, 2016 limited; January 6, 2017 wide
Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, (voice of) Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell
Take E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, strip away all of its charm, humor, joy, and wonder, leave in only the most wrenching emotional baggage, then increasingly double down on that for two hours…and you basically have A Monster Calls.
It’s easy to love the idea of this movie, of what it wants to be, a Guillermo del Toro-lite dark fantasy fable with YA aspirations. Based on a beloved illustrated novel, A Monster Calls is for those who connect with fairy tales, legends, and ghost stories, but well beyond their magical surfaces and more deeply to their ability to help us confront and cope with life’s biggest fears. But such stories need some uplift along the way, or some paternal / maternal / pastoral figure or temperament, but this adaptation has none.
Instead, it has that scary monster who appears in a boy’s nightmares.
Voiced by Liam Neeson (as if fresh off a Taken shoot), the monster is like a rogue talking tree from Middle Earth with an intense disposition and his own particular set of rules. He appears just-past-midnight in the dreams of Conor, a distraught boy whose mother is suffering from terminally ill cancer. In each dream-visit, the monster tells a fable. They’re darker, more complex tales (think Tolkien, not Lewis) in which things aren’t always as they seem. The stories all serve a purpose: to help Conor see his world, and his enemies, in new ways.
The challenge with the monster’s stories isn’t how they’re rendered; told through iconic watercolor animations, they’re a visual highlight. The problem is that these segments really don’t build off of each other, merely repeating the same thematic arcs and dynamics (which are exclusively heavy). Akin to fantastical role play counseling sessions, their lessons are pummeled into Conor through the monster’s brand of shock therapy.
There are no peaks and valleys to the narrative, only sequential lows, and the monster is not a comforting friend that guides Conor through various horrors; on the contrary, he’s a confrontational Id. After awhile you begin to wonder, “Does this kid need to keep being put through this? Do we?”
Conor is played by Lewis MacDougall, and the grueling grind of his psychological ordeal is no fault of his own. If anything, this endurance test on Conor’s psyche makes MacDougall’s performance all-the-more impressive. He gives it his absolute all, bearing heart, tears, and soul. God bless him, he must have been absolutely exhausted at the end of this shoot.
Sure, there’s wondrous filmmaking on display, particularly the monster itself which is a truly spectacular creation. Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage) continues to impress as a filmmaker of great visual instinct, tone, and atmosphere, and his intent to communicate hard but necessary truths is undoubtedly earnest, but the relentless sobriety and compounding weight just sucks all the life right out of the whole thing. The progressive net effect is a fantasy far too dire to effectively work its lessons into a viewer’s heart and mind, perhaps especially a kid’s.
Despite tackling grim stuff for a family movie (it’s definitely too much for grade schoolers and younger), its seriousness still could’ve been a virtue if it hadn’t been strictly somber from start to finish. A lack of any other level or perspective seriously cramps its desired cathartic potential, and only those who may relate very specifically to Conor’s journey – even beat for beat, whether literally or metaphorically – may glean some meaningful rewards.
Bayona is clearly a gifted filmmaker, a real visionary, and everyone should be thrilled he’s been given the reins to Jurassic World 2. But here, as a purveyor of scarring realities to a still-maturing target audience, he simply tries way too hard. The best fables find hope even in tragedy, and they rely just as much on poignancy as they do grief (maybe even more so), but all that remains in A Monster Calls is angst-ridden sadness.
About the only hope it provides is the message that it’s okay to grieve, even necessary, which is a good message (and indeed, the movie’s heart is in the right place), but man, what an exhausting dirge to make that point.