A MONSTER CALLS (2016) Conor (Lewis MacDougall) and The Monster (performed and voiced by Liam Neeson)

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell

Director: J.A. Bayona

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Not Watering Down the Rough Patches in Life

Release Date: December 23, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

In the fantasy/domestic drama A Monster Calls, adolescent Conor O’Malley (Lewis McDougal) must deal with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness, his grandmother’s (Sigourney Weaver) overbearing presence, a classmate’s (James Melville) frequent torments, and the geographical distance from his father (Toby Kebbell). In the midst of all this arises a humanoid tree visitor (voiced by Liam Neeson) from the cemetery by his house. Is this monster a friend offering relief, or a foe busting in with more troubles? Hard to say. What he does have are stories, but their meanings are either difficult to parse or not as comforting as Conor would like.

A Monster Calls is admirably challenging for a film ostensibly aimed at family audiences. The laws of nature are likely to make the life of any teenage boy turbulent, and that difficulty is piled on via his parents’ separation, mother’s closeness to death, and the oppressive dreariness of England. A more typical “fantasy creature meets boy” story would position the monster as protector or companion, but for Conor the Liam Neeson Tree is mostly a source of frustration, which he internalizes and takes out on those around him – destroying a room at his grandmother’s in a fit of rage, getting back at the bully – and the consequences are confoundingly minimal. Conor expects to be punished, but life does not always make sense.

Making A Monster Calls difficult to embrace fully are the unpleasant sound effects that accompany every movement of the tree monster. They are, in a word, oppressive. Perhaps they are meant to illustrate the lack of comfort inherent in Conor’s story, but that strikes me as a step too far.

A Monster Calls is Recommended If You LikeThe BFG, The Mother-Son Relationship from The Babadook, Kid Actors with Fiery Emotions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Snapping Tree Branches