Image Credit: Focus Features
In a year where we have had many fantastical beasts, magical creatures, and wizarding mayhem, the start of 2017 proves to be no different, when 12 year old Conor O’ Malley, the young hero of this story, companion is a CGI tree voiced by Liam Neeson in “A Monster Calls” the latest film from J.A Bayona; an enthralling gothic fable that is laced with terrific visual effects. Don’t worry, the tree, known here as “The Monster,” is far more intriguing than I describe, in fact, it’s the heart of this story and where Bayona (who last directed the Oscar darling “The Impossible”) extends his gifted genes.
While his mother (Felicity Jones) battles cancer and his dad (Toby Kebbell) gets ready to move across the country; a lonely, fragile, little boy (played by newcomer Lewis MacDougall) is beside himself with problems that even the strongest of human beings would have a hard time facing. His outbursts, lambasted, thoughts awake in the form of an ancient healing tree with longtime vet Neeson providing the pipes. The tree uproots itself near Conor’s home, and is a euphemism for the young British boy to face his biggest fears. Whether that helps him conquer the bullies at school, or, the central theme, his mother’s cancer, the monster only assembles when he is called and Conor (knowingly or not) has called him.
Arriving precisely at the same time every day (12:07 - his own witching hour) The Monster promises to tell the boy three stories, to which, after the third - Conor must present the fourth -- his own truth in himself, and biggest nightmare. A message that has been beaten down into the art of cinema for decades, but there is an underlying sweetness that Bayona is able to progress with, and part of that is the visual splendour he employs.
Conor goes through quite a bit, more than most children his age should, but with heavy themes that touch on grief and despair, I found it could be possible for “A Monster Calls” to miss the target audience (it’s far too sophisticated for children below the age of 12) and part of the movie wants to be more for kids eight years and older, but the PG13 rating all but speaks for itself.
Still, the watercolor animated sequences which are shown when The Monster tells his three tales to the young lad are vigorously breathtaking; which leads up to Conor having his own self realization that might warrant a few tissues following the films conclusion. Granted, Bayona doesn’t have to work too hard for those tears, with a score that swells in all the right moments, and a fine young actor that is far ahead of his time. “A Monster Calls” doesn’t try to be anything other than a tall tale for us to embrace, and their is a good balance between that and cancer drama. It has a few rushed moments that I wished slowed down more to let us ingest the surroundings, but the films better half shines through. With Bayona himself about to make the leap from under the radar indies, to big budget blockbusters (he is set to helm the “Jurassic World” sequel) one can only hope that, much like this movie, he keeps his heart in the right place. B+