Monster Calls, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/17/17 23:21:34

"Not as great as its ambition, but still impressive in spots."
3 stars (Just Average)

I don’t think we’ve quite reached a point where what a filmmaker can do with the technology at his or her disposal is so simultaneously incredible and accessible that it can be taken for granted, but it’s certainly easier to become jaded. The first half-hour or so of "A Monster Calls", for instance, offers constant delight in not just the obvious fantasy elements director J.A. Bayona and his crew put on the screen, but just how carefully and beautifully everything else in the film is constructed; by the end, one will quite likely find oneself taking that for granted. As good, sincere, and capable as their efforts are, one can still get detached and wonder if it’s enough.

To no longer amaze as the film approaches the finish is probably a deliberate choice on Bayona’s part, and the confidence behind it is admirable: If he’s making the movie he wants to make, then the audience should be fully invested emotionally with the characters by the end, to the point where he needs to be worried that the spectacle he used to draw the viewer in might prove a distraction. So when the script by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the original novel) moves the characters from one house to another, the new place doesn’t seem quite so lovingly constructed and designed, the exteriors have less of a strong sense of place, and the final story that the monster of the title tells is not animated as the others are. The film does not abandon its fantasy elements, but it de-emphasizes them in a way that has clear intent.

The question then becomes whether the story is worth that trade-off, and it’s not quite all the way there. The basic premise of it isn’t bad - as the mother (Felicity Jones) of 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) fights a losing battle with cancer, he sees the ancient yew tree in a nearby churchyard come to life as a monster (voice of Liam Neeson). The cast of characters surrounding him - a sadistic bully (James Melville), a stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), a friendly but uninvolved father (Toby Kebbell) - is a good one. But the getting things together often seems arbitrary enough to put off full involvement: When the monster shows up and announces he’s going to tell three stories and then Conor will tell him a fourth, it’s a weird enough demand for the filmmakers to have Conor remark upon it, and they never do make it seem natural, especially as a part of Conor’s subconscious. He’s not quite that imaginatively clever, and while the viewer can see the film stretching to connect storytelling and art to dealing with real-life turmoil, that connection remains just elusive enough that, when it’s supposed to be the emotional foundation of the climax, it’s just short.

The cast does nice work, though. Lewis MacDougall is not always the most emotive of young actors, but as a kid who is in basically every scene of the film, that’s sometimes preferable to overdoing it. He’s believably pained when he needs to be, with a good grasp on how to play it as stoicism, and when he explodes, it feels like a genuinely pained kid rather than yelling it without knowing the feeling. Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbell playing complementary parents, her carefully trying not to show strain and him nicely showing his character trying to be the father he imagines himself to be. Sigourney Weaver winds up turning in what is often the most fascinating performance, taking the distraught but usually-controlled woman on the page and making sure that she’s hard to warm up to even as it’s very easy to empathize with her; a late scene where she’s deservedly furious with Conor but obviously understands why he’s acting the way he is works terrifically because of the emotions at right angles written all over Weaver’s face.

Liam Neeson gives a fair performance as the monster - his voice is the right sort of warm and reassuring even as he’s able to transform it with an intimidating edge - although it sometimes seems like he’s a little stating things when he should be conversing. Visually, the monster is terrific, all twisted roots with an internal red glow that’s equal parts blood and fire, with every detail both humanizing it and emphasizing how alien it is, with the credits seeming to imply that some of the close-up work is practical rather than digital, giving it a little less mobility but a bit more presence. Bayona uses a lot of artifice at various points that he’s sometimes a little too eager for the audience to see (the watercolor-styled stories are nifty animation, but seems to understand a little better than most how people’s heads handle visual effects - he can use something not looking quite real to set mood, or set up a moment where something not moving quite right signals the beginning of something more fantastical.

"A Monster Calls" is a good movie that seems to have the raw materials for greatness, as well as the ambition for it. It doesn’t completely come together, but much more of it works than doesn’t, and it’s such an often beautifully-realized film that it’s well worth seeing on the big screen, even if it is, at heart, the sort of contained story that people will frequently wait to view at home.

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