A Monster Calls – Review (*** 1/2)

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A startlingly unique coming-of-age yarn brought to the big screen by the immensely skilled J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and impending custodian of the Jurassic Park franchise), A Monster Calls melds low-fantasy with high-drama for one of the year’s most emotionally shattering cinematic experiences.

Young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is struggling to deal with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) fight against an aggressive form of cancer, when one night, Conor is visited by a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who has three fantastical stories to tell the boy before he claims that Conor will have his own story to tell back to the tree.

On paper, it’s so clearly a premise that could’ve flown wildly off the rails, yet Bayona’s sensitive direction combined with the novel’s author Patrick Ness adapting his own script to the screen ensures a pitch-perfect tonal balance throughout.

Melding kitchen sink drama with CGI-fueled set-pieces isn’t easy, and yet it plays so naturally here, in large part because of the immediately apparent allegorical function of the “monster”, to help Conor cope with his mother’s progressing illness. The three stories he recites to Conor, two of them animated in a beautifully delineated style, are easy high points of the production.

As magnificent as Neeson is as the anthropomorphic yew tree with a wise head and heart of gold – and he really is magnificent – it’s the more grounded human element that ultimately wins out. MacDougall does a terrific job in the central role, conveying the dizzying mix of emotions (namely the anger) Conor feels, while demonstrating superb chemistry with Neeson and of course, his screen mother Jones.

What could’ve so easily been a goofy, even jarring mix of tones, ideas and feelings in fact ends up evoking an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction. The movie’s climax in particular resulted in a chorus of sniffing at the London Film Festival press screening, touching on a certain universality of the human experience and giving the preceding 100 minutes a devastatingly fitting payoff.

It may play as too bizarre and free-wheeling to truly resonate deeply for some, but for those prepared to take the leap of faith with Bayona and his exceptional cast, A Monster Calls is one of the year’s unexpected emotional treats. Just be sure to bring tissues. Lots of tissues.

*** 1/2

A Monster Calls premiered at the London Film Festival yesterday, is in US cinemas December 23rd, and UK cinemas January 6th

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