Friday, December 30, 2016

"A Monster Calls"

 5 / 5  

Not being a parent, I was entirely unaware of the prize-winning, critically lauded children's novel A Monster Calls, so I knew nothing of the story when the lights dimmed, just a vague understanding that it involved a little boy whose mother was dying, a tree and a monster.

Those are, in fact, the most basic of plot elements in J.A. Bayona's singularly superb adaptation, though they do not even hint at the emotional complexity of the movie, or the experience of seeing it, which I thought might be a deeply and pointedly personal experience until I heard the sniffing and tissue-reaching going on all around me.

It would take an awfully cold heart not to be moved by the movie's intensity, sincerity and visual beauty, though a quick scan of the Internet shows that rabid fans of the illustrated novel find it too faithful to its source material.  Perhaps that's so, but for the uninitiated like me, A Monster Calls is striking for both its surface-level design and for its deeply wrought story, not to mention its striking visual effects.

I'd go so far as to call Liam Neeson's eponymous monster one of the best CG characters yet seen, a giant of a tree-man who bears some immediate resemblance to Marvel's popular Groot since they are both, well, tree-men.  Then again, Felicity Jones plays a central role in A Monster Calls and no one's going to mistake her for a Star Wars character.  Appearances, as the Monster himself might say, can be mere distractions.

The Monster is a giant, walking and talking yew tree who pays a visit late one night to Conor O'Malley, who's "too old to be a kid but too young to be a man."  Conor's mother is dying of cancer, and his imperious grandmother is trying to call the shots at home.  His long-gone father is on the way back from his new life in L.A., but even the hope of seeing him can't change Conor's loneliness.  Bullied at school, unsure of his place in life and facing the impossible thought of life after his mother, Conor cannot understand what the Monster wants.

The lumbering beast threatens -- or promises -- to tell Conor three stories in exchange for a mysterious fourth, which Conor will need to tell himself.  And indeed he does tell the first of his stories, which proves to be as elegant as it is inscrutable.  As his mother's health deteriorates, Conor begins to anticipate the Monster's arrival and the promises the creature makes.

The Monster's stories are depicted in two long, astonishing animated sequences, which are further enriched by Neeson's deep, soothing voice.   Left to discern the meaning of the stories on his own, Conor becomes one of the screen's truly great child characters thanks to an almost impossibly nuanced and intuitive performance by Lewis McDougall, who can't help but recall Henry Thomas in E.T., though his character is infinitely richer.  That's meant as no slight to E.T., which A Monster Calls does vaguely resemble in the best ways; they're both modern fables that begin with familiar tropes, which they gloriously reassemble.

There are rich performances by Jones and by Sigourney Weaver as Conor's grandmother.  Her accent may be noticeably inconsistent, but her emotional heart is true and strong, especially the way she plays a key scene of unexpected chaos.  She's a steadying presence in a complicated film.

At the core of A Monster Calls is the relationship between Conor and the Monster, and it's real, mesmerizing and deeply affecting.  As the movie alternates between the tumult of Conor's life and the increasingly violent and troubling ways the Monster makes his presence known to Conor, A Monster Calls creates a vision that does not pretend the world is anything but difficult -- not just for children, but for the adults they become.  Don't let the fact that it's based on a children's novel fool you: It's a surprisingly dark movie that does not pretend to be about anything other than the terrors of loss and grief.

They are difficult, distressing subjects, but they're impossible to avoid.  A Monster Calls never tries to be a happy movie; it's both a fanciful examination of a serious subject and a serious examination of a fanciful one -- and in either case, it's both beautiful and affecting.

Yes, the Monster is a computer-generated tree-man, and yes, the movie's central relationship is between a big plant and an emotionally lost and frightened little boy -- but what are movies for if not to convince you that anything is possible?  A Monster Calls does exactly that.

Viewed Dec. 29, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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