A Monster Calls, B
Rated PG-13, 108 minutes
Some of the most unusual things - even our own imagination - can help us deal with things in life to become better people. That is the premise of the pensive but touching and well-acted new fantasy drama "A Monster Calls," directed by J.A. Bayona ("The Impossible") and written by Patrick Ness, based on his young adult novel of the same name.
Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall, redeeming himself from the "Pan" disaster last year) is a young boy who tries to deal with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones), the attacks by a local school bully and dealing with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). One night, Conor encounters a "monster" (memorably voiced by Liam Neeson) in the form of a giant humanoid yew tree who has come to tell him stories and soon begins to help Conor fix his unhappy life.
The heartwarming but often heartbreaking "A Monster Calls" comes recommended, but know if you take young children (under age 10), it may require some additional conversations after the film is over. That's not a bad thing, but the poignant film, which should resonate with many, is a downer, so don't go in expecting Disney or a happy rainbows-and-flowers type of ending, as this definitely won't have it, but it will certainly make you thankful for your mother or mother-type figure in your life.
"A Monster Calls" certainly has many merits, though: it's grounded by a convincing turn from newcomer MacDougall as the lead Conor, who has some serious issues in his life: death, divorce, bullying, a strict grandmother and a frightening tree that comes alive to tell him stories. You wish he had a more happy place to go to, even in his mind, but the closest thing to a happy place is that tree (superbly voiced by Neeson, who's becoming as skilled as Morgan Freeman in providing skilled voice work), who seemingly causes more unhappiness and destruction.
Equally as memorable and rightfully gaining some awards attention is "The Theory of Everything's" Jones as Conor's ill mother; it's a transformative but touching role that awards, especially the Oscars, are attracted to. Less convincing is a miscast Weaver as the grandmother, and as much as she tries, her British accent comes and goes, though she has one of the film's most touching scenes with MacDougall near the end.
"A Monster Calls" is peppered with some handsome visuals, and Bayona integrates them well into the satisfying story, which finally sees MacDougall's Conor smile near the end. It's a bittersweet tale for sure, and come armed with some extra tissues, as that final scene will get to you.