Review by Bob Ignizio
If you've seen the trailer for A MONSTER CALLS, it looks like your typical awe and wonder magical realism dreck about a boy and his giant tree creature friend. Don't get me wrong. The film, directed by J.A. Bayona from a script by Patrick Ness (adapted from his award winning book), does center on a young English boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall). And Conor does in fact associate with a giant tree monster (the voice of Liam Neeson). But there are no humorous capers or uplifting lessons about being true to oneself or whatever harmless pablum that passes for a message in most modern kid's films.
Instead, the tree monster shows up to share 3 stories with Conor, in return for which Conor must share a 4th story, that of his recurring nightmare. The stories the tree monster tells are complex and morally ambiguous, seeking to teach the young boy how to understand the often contradictory aspects of the human condition. These stories, depicted in an animation style that resembles watercolors come to life, all have some connection to Conor's current situation in the real world.
About that situation. Conor's mom Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is undergoing chemotherapy. His dad (Toby Kebbel) left the family some time ago and now lives in America with a new family. He's returned to England to help Conor cope during this difficult time, but isn't particularly interested in having the boy come live with him full time should things not go well with mom's treatment. In that case, Conor would be left in the care of his maternal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), a somewhat cold and distant woman who he views as something of a witch. There's no comfort at school, either, where Conor is regularly accosted by a bully (James Melville).
The film does manage a few light moments, but for the most part this is a serious, somber affair. And while it may use fantasy to make its points, it depicts the stages of grief and the messiness of being human better and more intelligently than many more grounded and adult films.
This one technically slips in as a 2016 release due to a late December opening in a few cities, even though it's hitting Cleveland this week. If I were to modify my best of 2016 list, this would certainly make the cut. But since I make my "best of" lists based on Cleveland opening dates, I'll just have to wait until next year's list. I'll be stunned if enough movies as good or better appear between now and then to knock this out of the top 10 for 2017.
But be warned: if you have any kind of heart at all, A MONSTER CALLS will wreck you. And it will wreck your kids, so take that PG-13 rating seriously. There's no graphic violence or sex or anything most would consider inappropriate, but thematically there's a lot to process here. Even some older kids (heck, some adults) might have a tough time with this one. There certainly were a lot of grown folks sniffling, and even a little crying, at the screening I went to. 4 out of 4 stars.