The truth is always somewhere in-between.
In a small English town, twelve-year old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) tries his best to take care of his beloved Mum (Felicity Jones) who has fallen ill. Between school bullying, his meddlesome Grandma (Sigourney Weaver), and an absent father living far off in America, Conor’s world feels likes it’s closing in. With art and imagination as his only escape, an ancient yew tree next to an old cemetery church captures his attention — more so when he observes the tree transform after midnight into a giant Monster (Liam Neeson). The destructive creature seems to already know Conor and promises him three stories, but after those are finished, Conor is tasked to tell a story of his own… and he is warned: it must be the truth.
After the underperforming summer release of Steven Spielberg’s The BFG — no, that doesn’t mean “Big Frakking Gun” — trailers for A Monster Calls must have seemed underwhelming. Unfortunately, little about the story seems to be out there, perhaps relying on fans of the original children’s literature novel of the same name… a strategy also employed by The BFG’s marketing. Parallels aside, A Monster Calls concerns a child dealing with a grownup issue, blurring the line between fantasy and reality without lessening the punch. Is it a kid’s movie that adults will get or a grownup movie that features a child?
The truth is exactly in-between: a serious drama that employs a fantasy element as we learn about Conor’s situation. Like many children, he’s insulated from bad elements by well-meaning adults trying to preserve his innocence, and they underestimate him for the same reason. Fortunately, the Monster respects the boy’s intelligence, imparting lessons and guiding the youth in all the ways his relatives and schoolteachers have failed to do. It feels as though the creature is pushing him, but one has to wonder if Conor is actually pushing himself — is the Monster the real, all in his head, or some combination of the two? As the story unfolds, Conor discovers bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad ones, regardless of who deserves what. In spite of the subject matter and the generally dire atmosphere, the story find bits of light and humor to push back the shadows, especially in the dénouement. It helps… a lot.
Using motion capture techniques, Liam Neeson not only provides the Monster’s voice but his movement as well. Lewis MacDougall has to carry the production as Conor and does so perfectly in spite of the huge demand placed upon him. More coming-of-age than hero’s journey, the plot is mostly straight forward, but the story beneath the plot points carries weight, especially when events take a turn for the unexpected. Saying more will spoil some great storytelling, but viewers should watch carefully; everything has meaning… even things that initially appear insignificant.
Like most things these days, A Monster Calls is rated PG-13, but the subject matter may affect youngsters who are nonetheless old enough to understand what’s happening. For emotional punch and adventure in spite of general predictability, Kubo and the Two Strings was one of the 2016’s best, but for a fearless fairy tale that thrives in the dark, this monster has a higher calling.
4 Skull Recommendation Out of Four