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‘A Monster Calls’ Review: Film Version Of Children’s Novel Is A Very Dark Proposition

Deadline logo Deadline 1/5/2017 Pete Hammond
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When is a kids movie not for kids? Well, it doesn’t happen often, but Patrick Ness’ screen adaptation by of his award-winning children’s novel A Monster Calls is not for the little ones at all, or maybe even the semi-little ones. This story of 15-year-old Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a decidedly dark and often disturbing experience, and I’m not just talking about the monster here. Connor is dealing with a lot. His young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is cold and difficult, his father (Toby Kebbell) is virtually AWOL most of the time, plus the kids at school bully him a lot. What to do?

Connor tends to get lost in creating his own world through illustration, and then there is that giant monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who morphs out of a large tree and comes calling on various nights at Connor’s bedroom window. It is this relationship in the film that is the most galvanizing and special as the Monster tells the kid stories that director J.A. Bayona turns into impressive fantasy sequences. These are necessary flights from reality for this kid, as well as the audience, which as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch) must endure a very depressing world dealing with illness, death, conflict, regret, confusion, fear — you name it. Not exactly G-rated stuff, and I think Focus Features, which is releasing the film wide this week, would be wise to aim it at adults who might be more appreciative of the nature of the storytelling here.

Bayona certainly is an impressive director, having helmed the terrific The Impossible as well as The Orphanage. But both of those movies, as this one does, dealt in some ways with kids and separation issues and, like Monster Calls, were harrowing in their own way. Ness has done an able job in bringing his book to life onscreen, in no small part due to his book’s original illustrator Jim Kay, who repeats those duties here and expands on the drawings in a very cinematic way.

MacDougall is asked to do a lot and succeeds admirably with a first-rate performance of youth dealing with very adult problems. Jones dives into the role of the cancer-ridden mother nicely and has some effective scenes detailing her complex relationship with her mom, delivered with an all-pro turn as usual by Weaver, this time battling monsters of the sort she never faced in Aliens. Neeson in a stirring voice-over role is towering in more ways than I can explain.

It’s hard to gauge just exactly who the target audience is for this film as it seems it falls smack in the middle of generations. Nevertheless, the filmmaking is first rate, and the visual effects are outstanding. The film opened a qualifying run in December but sadly those excellent effects are not on the Oscar shortlist in that category. Too bad. Producer is Belen Atienza.

Do you plan to see A Monster Calls? Let us know what you think.

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