THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"A MONSTER CALLS"
A Monster Calls is a masterpiece of imagination. Movies like this don't come around very often, and when they do, they're worth cherishing. This is a fantasy film, made with great artistry, that contains a surprising amount of depth. It avoids cloying sentimentality in addressing grief and loss, instead using its fantastical elements to get at some relevant truths without making you feel like you've been manipulated in the process. You walk away touched, but also incredibly uplifted by the inherent creativity of the story.
Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, a young boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. He can't quite bring himself to accept the inevitable, even when his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) shows up to offer care. Given that his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in America and only returns to England occasionally, there is no one for the boy to really talk to. One evening, Conor receives the first of several visits from a massive tree monster (expertly voiced by Liam Neeson). The Monster tells him three stories all depicted in dazzling watercolor-based animation with oddly ambiguous morals. Over time, Conor discerns the meaning of these stories, which are tied directly to the emotions he's bottling up inside.
Written by Patrick Ness and based on his novel, A Monster Calls strikes a good balance. It's about a very serious topic, yet it understands that fantasy elements can allow audiences to broach such topics in a safe way. Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) creates a lush, enticing visual style for the film. There are plenty of special effects, none of which feel superfluous. They are extensions of Conor's creative mind, his way of processing that which cannot be easily processed. Everything shown feels like it really would be a construct dreamed up by a kid in emotional anguish.
The CGI used to create the Monster is first-rate. Unlike some movies that feature computer-generated beings, A Monster Calls manages to make the tree an authentic character, rather than one that's fabricated. He's tall and kind of menacing at first glance, gradually revealing enormous empathy. The bond between Conor and the Monster comes alive the more they interact. The whole point of the story is that imagination can be a salvation during life's difficult moments, helping us to make sense of the things that are hard to wrap our heads around. Because the creature has been so carefully rendered, that idea rings through powerfully. The Monster becomes a lifeline for Conor.
Children often have trouble verbalizing what they feel, except in the most rudimentary of terms. Conor is no different. The movie uses the stories the Monster tells to show how he gradually learns to understand the intense emotions swirling inside of him. In the third act, Conor has an abrupt flash of clarity one that surprises him as a repressed thought pops out at his imaginary mentor's prodding. That scene, in particular, exemplifies what's so extraordinary about A Monster Calls. Conor's behavior grows increasingly erratic with each tale the tree tells him. Cracks form in the walls he has built around himself. Only when those walls finally crumble is he able to say the thing that has been eating him up inside. It's a devastating moment that says something profound about how children view grief.
Lewis MacDougall is a revelation as Conor. Rarely is a child actor able to so thoroughly meet the demands of such a challenging role. In his hands, Conor's anguish at his mother's illness -- and wonder at the Monster -- shine through. Felicity Jones is similarly outstanding as Mum. The full scope of her role only snaps into place near the end, when you realize how crucial the little touches she's brought to the film are.
Every frame of A Monster Calls is visually magnificent, especially those animated sequences. Bayona expertly mixes reality and fantasy so that the pieces not only compliment each other, but also work jointly to make a huge thematic impact. (Observant viewers will additionally notice some hidden clues that suggest the reasons why Conor imagines things as he does.) This is much more than just a fantasy film. It's a sincere, compassionate, and massively entertaining look at how children attempt to cope with scary events.
It's an absolute blessing that this movie exists.
( out of four)
A Monster Calls is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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