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Family Movie Review: A Monster Calls (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13         Length: 108 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 12+. Although marketed for kids, ‘A Monster Calls’ is really more appropriate for tweens and older viewers because of its heavy thematic content and emotional elements. A boy deals with the stress, confusion, and grief caused by his mother suffering from cancer, lashing out at family members and peers; various scenes of physical and emotional bullying, including one scene that is somewhat homophobic; and some cursing. Also some fantastical elements with an anthropomorphized tree who comes to life and tells the boy stories that involve death, faith, and loss.

The latest young-adult-novel-turned-film, ‘A Monster Calls,’ approaches its narrative of grief and loss with equal parts nuance and ferocity, plus some beautiful animation. But this film, despite its marketing, is not for children, needing older tween and teen viewers to appreciate its depths.

By Roxana Hadadi

AMonsterCalls ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewIn 2016, the best animated film of that year, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” began with a boy imploring us to pay attention to the story he was going to tell, encouraging us to go ahead and blink before the engrossing, immersive tale began. The same kind of introduction is given to us by “A Monster Calls,” and it’s equally well-deserved here, too.

This is a harrowing story about loss and how a boy—“too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”—deals with the immense hardships and unfairness placed in his path. With its beautiful animation sequences, strong performances, and unflinching depiction of grief, “A Monster Calls” leaves you with the feeling that by viewing, you’re poking an open wound, fingering at the edges of its rawness. That sounds difficult, and it is, but to fixate on that would overlook how meaningful and memorable “A Monster Calls” is, too.

The film, based on the novel by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd, focuses on the 13-year-old British boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall, of “Pan”), who lives with his mother (Felicity Jones, of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), who is suffering from cancer. Conor seems to live in his own personal cocoon of sadness: He doesn’t have any friends, he’s overwhelmed and exhausted by his mother’s illness, and he’s brutally bullied at school, beaten up and blackmailed into staying quiet.

His only outlet is through his artwork, which was encouraged by his creative, free-spirited mother before she became sick, but isn’t so fondly looked upon by his no-nonsense, strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, of “Ghostbusters”). But at least she is aware of Conor’s interests—his father (Toby Kebbell, of “Ben-Hur”), living in Los Angeles after the divorce from his mother and now with a new wife and daughter, doesn’t seem to really know anything about his clearly struggling son.

At the center of this whirlwind of thoroughly crappy circumstances, Conor feels totally alone—until one night, at 12:07 a.m., when a monster calls. The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson, of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) is the anthropomorphized, gigantic yew tree that looks over a cemetery near Conor’s home—like an ent from the Lord of the Rings universe, or a hugely scaled-up Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” with an actual vocabulary—and he knows about the troubling nightmare Conor keeps having about that very same graveyard. So he demands that Conor listen to three stories the Monster will share, and then the boy will have to provide a tale of his own—“this truth that you hide, this truth that you dream.”

With each tale, the Monster tries to impart some lesson on Conor, challenging him to interpret the stories in unexpected ways, to learn that “there is not always a good guy … nor is there always a bad one,” and to stop being invisible. At the same time, Conor is still holding out hope that his mother will get better—even as each day seems to make that outcome increasingly unlikely.

“A Monster Calls” doesn’t sugarcoat much, and its marketing team should be admonished for making the film seem fluffier and more suitable for younger viewers than it actually is. Conor’s life is unbelievably tough, but his narrative arc is one that would be most relatable and sympathetic for tweens and teens. And while “A Monster Calls” ends in a way you would expect, most of its elements work well together to tell the story: MacDougall and Jones have great son/mother chemistry; Neeson’s voice work and motion-capture performance is stellar; Kebbell is perfectly cast as the out-of-his-depth dad; and the animation sequences when the Monster is telling his stories are beautifully saturated watercolors that contrast with the otherwise bleak black and grey color palette.

There are some issues with the pacing (the narrative drags a bit in places, and the end feels drawn out), and the film’s inaccurate marketing strategy can’t be ignored. But for the right audience, the visually and emotionally absorbing “A Monster Calls” is the right movie.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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