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A Monster Calls Movie Review

A Monster Calls (2016) movie poster A Monster Calls

Theatrical Release: December 23, 2016 / Running Time: 108 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: J.A. Bayona / Writers: Patrick Ness (screenplay & novel), Siobhan Dowd (original idea)

Cast: Lewis MacDougall (Conor O'Malley), Sigourney Weaver (Grandma), Felicity Jones (Mom), Toby Kebbell (Dad), Ben Moor (Mr. Clark), James Melville (Harry), Oliver Steer (Sully), Dominic Boyle (Anton), Jennifer Lim (Miss Kwan), Geraldine Chaplin (Head Teacher), Liam Neeson (The Monster)


Patrick Ness adapts his 2011 children's novel in A Monster Calls, a drama that walks a tightrope between intimate indie character study and effects-laden fantasy film.

Twelve-year-old British boy Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is in a dark place. His mother (Felicity Jones) is sick with a terminal illness.
His father (Toby Kebbell) now lives in America with a new family and hardly sees him. And Conor is regularly bullied at school.

The boy begins seeing more than he would like of his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, doing a plenty passable British accent), who thinks it's best for him to live with her in her boring, old house where he isn't supposed to touch anything. More excitingly, Conor begins seeing a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson, who performed the role in motion capture), a giant tree-like creature who is there to help. The Monster looks like a giant Groot, but he has the propensity for destruction of another Marvel hero, the Hulk. He encourages Conor to lay siege to Grandmother's house. But he also tries to help the boy make sense of the whirlwind of emotions he is experiencing.

In "A Monster Calls", a large tree-like monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) visits a bullied boy (Lewis MacDougall) with a sick mother.

The tall being, who always visits at 12:07 (night or day), uses four stories -- presented in varied but always interesting animation styles -- to make different points to the child about the monster's past experiences and defied expectations. Conor clings to hoping that his mother will respond to the different challenging cancer treatments she's being subjected to, but it is clear to us that life's hardships don't disappear so easily.

A Monster Calls has a reported production budget of $43 million, the rare film to exist between the deep-pocketed tentpoles and shoestring indies that together encompass most of today's cinematic offerings. It takes a little from both classes. Director J.A. Bayona isn't completely new to such a venture, having helmed The Orphanage for Guillermo del Toro. The budget goes toward bringing the branch-limbed monster to life in a believably weighted fashion.

The monster's destruction does require some visual effects, which that unusual mid-sized budget does sufficiently cover. But spectacle is even lower on Bayona's priority list than it was on his previous film,
the Indian Ocean tsunami survival drama The Impossible. The heart of Ness' tale and his screenplay is in the emotions of the young and vulnerable Conor. A Monster Calls tugs on the heartstrings and pushes you towards a box of tissues. Though it does this tastefully, there is still an element of manipulation that you must recognize. The film is explicitly designed to move you and to sympathize with a young protagonist for whom nothing is going right. Only a monster will choose not to do it and not the kind who speak with Liam Neeson's comforting brogue.

Though scheduled like an awards contender with a limited coastal Christmas bow leading to today's wide expansion, A Monster Calls most likely is not one (though it has drawn dozens of nominations and two wins from minor regional film festivals). But it is a compelling study that finds a fascinating middle ground between the two extremes that make up most of Hollywood's output.

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Directed by J.A. Bayona: The Impossible
Liam Neeson: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe | Felicity Jones: The Theory of Everything Inferno
Hugo The Spiderwick Chronicles Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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Reviewed January 6, 2017.

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