Review: ‘A Monster Calls’

dfn_monster_calls_300Pardon the expression, but it can be monstrously difficult to adapt a children’s book into a major motion picture.

In this age of visual effects, it seems like almost anything is possible, and J.A. Bayona’s version of A Monster Calls summons up fantastic images, allowing a giant, monstrous, lumbering tree (voiced by a growling Liam Neeson) to serve as a hectoring, lecturing mentor to Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a boy on the cusp of adolescence who is struggling to cope with life.

At school, Conor is bullied mercilessly by slightly bigger and bulkier schoolmates. At home, Conor is crushed by the prolonged, terminal illness of his beloved mother (Felicity Jones). At night, Conor escapes from his problems by drawing.

On one of those nights, Conor’s drawing of a nearby tree comes to life and stomps to his room, demanding that the boy listen as he tells him three stories, because the tree will then demand that Conor tell a story. The stories are told at night, each illustrated in a slightly different visual manner and teaching a different life lesson. Meanwhile, Conor seeks to apply the lessons so he can better handle both the bullies and the enemy death.

Writer Siobhan Dowd conjured up the original ideas, but died from breast cancer before she could write the novel she had planned. Inspired by her ideas, Patrick Ness wrote the novel, first published in 2011, and then adapted the book for the big screen.

Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) brings a gloomy consistency to A Monster Calls, and the movie certainly looks impressive as a glum reminder that tragedies, big and/or small, are inevitable in life. The lessons are probably good ones for young people to learn, though, as expressed here, they tend to tear down the soul in their relentless ambition to proclaim that everybody hurts.

There is no denying, however, that Bayona and company have captured the primal bond that exists between loving parent and grateful child, and when that is ripped apart, well, of course it will be painful, and anyone who is empathetic — or has experienced the death of a loved one — will respond with deep emotion.

Sigourney Weaver portrays Conor’s grandmother with a reserve of graceful restraint, while Toby Kebbell contributes a good turn as the Conor’s father, who harbors ill feelings toward his divorced wife that has poisoned his relationship with the boy.

Undoubtedly aimed at children of a certain age, A Monster Calls is an effective, if melodramatic, tearjerker for adults of a certain background and experience. It is a dark fantasy with an uncanny ability to seep into the subconscious.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, January 6.