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'A Monster Calls' explores mortality with a skillful blend of fantasy and grim reality

Posted January 6

“A MONSTER CALLS — 3 1/2 stars — Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, voice of Liam Neeson; PG-13 (thematic content and some scary images); in general release

A young boy sits at the center of “A Monster Calls,” but director J.A. Bayona’s film tells a surprisingly adult story.

On the surface, “A Monster Calls” is about a bullied young boy who gets regular visits from a monster that tells him fantastic stories. Under the surface, “A Monster Calls” is about a bullied young boy coming to grips with the loss of his mortally ill mother.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is an old soul in a young body. He sympathizes with the monsters he sees on TV (King Kong) because, unlike the monsters that rough him up at school, they never seem to be the ones picking the fights.

His mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of an undisclosed illness and his father (Toby Kebbell) left for America to start a new life with a different woman. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) tries to help, but she is separated from her grandson by much more than age. She also lives in one of those museum homes where you can’t touch anything, let alone act like a kid.

One night, Conor gets a visit from a giant creature that springs from the yew tree in the cemetery across the way and looks like one of the Ents from the Lord of the Rings movies. But rather than gobble him up on the spot, the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) announces a different, more insidious plan: He will tell Conor three different stories in the coming nights, and then the boy will be obligated to confess a deep and dark truth he’s been hiding.

Over the next several days, the Monster follows through on his promise, relating elaborate and deeply metaphoric tales of an orphaned heir to an ancient throne, a vengeful apothecary and an invisible man. Meanwhile, Conor’s world continues to fall apart. The bullying at school continues, his mother’s health declines and Conor lashes out against the reality of his predicament.

At first glance, “A Monster Calls” may appear to be a close cousin of last summer’s “The BFG,” which was also an adaptation of a children’s book. But, in spite of some gorgeous visuals and fantastical storytelling, “A Monster Calls” eschews the lighthearted tone of "The BFG" for a deep and often dark exploration of some very adult themes, made all the more tragic because it is such a young child that is facing them.

Eventually, “A Monster Calls” builds to a moving finale that is much more spiritual and emotional than action-packed. Bayona’s film is an adaptation of a novel from Patrick Ness, which itself was inspired by an idea from author Siobhan Dowd. As the story goes, Dowd lost her fight with cancer before she could write her novel and Ness eventually brought the story to the page, according to BBC.

MacDougall is convincing as the smart, sympathetic Conor and Jones continues to show her range as Conor’s dying Mum so soon after her action turn as Jyn Erso in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Weaver is dignified as Grandma, though her British accent feels inconsistent, and Neeson’s all-powerful voice proves it can be just as well-matched to an animated tree monster as a determined father talking threats over a cell phone to an Eastern European kidnapper.

“A Monster Calls” is a powerful and searching film, and though it might be too intense for very young children, it will stick in the hearts of older kids and, like the best stories, it will resonate with grown-ups as well.

“A Monster Calls” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images; running time: 108 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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