[Screen It]


(2016) (Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones) (PG-13)

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Drama/Fantasy: While dealing with his mom's major illness and other issues, a 12-year-old boy must contend with visits by a huge tree-monster that's arrived to teach him several life lessons.
Conor (LEWIS MacDOUGALL) is a 12-year-old boy whose life is in upheaval. Not only must he contend with psychological and physical harassment at the hands of fellow student Harry (JAMES MELVILLE) and other bullies, but he's also worried about his Mum (FELICITY JONES) who's been stricken with a major illness. Since his Dad (TOBY KEBBELL) lives in America with his new family, Conor's Grandma (SIGOURNEY WEAVER) has been taking care of both him and his Mum and believes the boy should come and live with her from this point forward as things aren't looking good for her daughter.

Due to the stress of it all, the boy has been experiencing nightmares where a nearby church and graveyard collapse into a huge sinkhole, with him desperately trying to hold onto his Mum's hand as she dangles above the resultant abyss. That comes into play when a towering yew tree turns into the fiery Monster (voice of LIAM NEESON) that pays Conor a visit, informing him that he'll return every night for three nights with a story to tell him, and that Conor will then tell the Monster one of his own.

The boy initially refuses, but eventually agrees, with the Monster telling him stories from the past, all of which contain important life lessons the Monster believes Conor must learn. As that continues, the 12-year-old tries to come to grips with the various issues facing him.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Growing up with a fairly large backyard filled with huge maples and elms, I loved our trees. We'd spend hours up in them, swing from their limbs and even use them as bases for pickup games of baseball, dodgeball and such. I don't recall once being afraid of them, even during storms that would thrash them about close to our house.

A bunch of dead trees directly alongside the dirt country road on the way to my grandparents' farmhouse at night was a different story. While I never played in or among them during the day, I distinctly remember the barren "arms" being illuminated by our car's headlights in the dark and thinking they were going to reach down and get me. As far as I know, such attempts were never made (or were they?), but those scary visuals are likely forever etched into my psyche.

Apparently, that child-based fear is something of a universal thing as Tobe Hooper (most likely receiving a little or a lot of input from Steven Spielberg) used a backyard suburban tree in a memorable nightmarish scene in the original "Poltergeist." In that, a thunderstorm is raging at night, one of the tree's branches breaks through the window, snatches up young Robbie and then tries to eat him.

While not up there in terms of overall scariness or carnivorous appetite, the notion of a tree monster has been taken up a notch or two (or fifty or one-hundred) in "A Monster Calls." A highly imaginative, engaging and emotionally touching film, it will likely give today's young kids reasons to look twice at towering trees, especially at night.

And that's not just for the scare potential, although there's plenty of that to go around, especially for younger eyes and later nightmares. It's also due to the fact that director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel of the same name) have personified the titular plant.

It arrives following a repeated nightmare 12-year-old Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) faces where an old church and adjacent graveyard suddenly collapse into a massive sinkhole and the boy tries to hold onto the hand of his mother (Felicity Jones) who's now dangling over an edge of that dark chasm.

The boy is having those terrifying (and symbolic) dreams because his mom is facing what appears to be a likely terminal illness. That's exacerbated by the fact that his dad (Toby Kebbell) is off living a new life with a new family in America, leaving the boy's grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) to care for him. He doesn't care for her or the notion of possibly having to go and live with her. And his troubles don't end there as a classmate bully (James Melville) and his minions enjoy terrorizing the kid.

Following one of those sinkhole nightmares, our huge tree arrives as if on cue, informing Conor that he has three stories to tell him, and that the fourth will be Conor's turn. Probably to no one's surprise, those tales -- rendered as watercolor type animation sequences -- serve as metaphors for what's going on in the boy's life as well as symbolic answers about how to deal with them.

It might sound a little hokey, but the way in which Bayona ("The Impossible," "The Orphanage") and Ness have arranged this 108-some minute film; the manner in which the tree monster has been created and visualized by the special effects crew; and the way that Liam Neeson provides the bass-heavy, rumbly voice of the wise, sometimes scary and occasionally exasperated monster is nothing short of magical and completely engaging.

While it might end up too dark for younger kids in terms of surprisingly heavy and sad thematic material for a fantasy style flick, I found that added extra layers of thought-provoking and emotionally involving substance to the already good mix. MacDougall is terrific as the boy who already has a lot on his plate (and heart, mind, and soul) when the story-laden monster shows up (and Neeson delivers the vocal performance of the year), while Jones and Weaver are also good in their parts. Tech credits are impressive across the board.

I have no idea if young kids will come out of this fearing trees or wishing they had a "friend" comprised of fibrous material, bark, and leaves, but I found "A Monster Calls" terrific from start to finish (and it might have me forgiving those scary trees on the way to grandma's house). It's in my top 10 of the year and rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 28, 2016 / Posted January 6, 2017

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