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TIFF Film Review: A Monster Calls

TIFF Film Review: A Monster Calls

Stories are the wildest things of all, The Monster tree proclaims at some point in the adaption of the children’s fairy tale A Monster Calls. But derivative tricks and uninteresting symbolism make it difficult to care about this TIFF movie, a purportedly sprawling drama about a boy dealing with loss. It’s not that the story is not touching—it is—but the manner in which it is told does not lend itself to a natural emotional connection. Its rich production values are impressive, but the somewhat terrifying nature of the titular Monster character make it of questionable value even as a kid’s movie.

Twelve-year old Conner O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is coping with his mother’s terminal illness while dealing with bullies at school and all the anger and confusion that young boys go through. His mother (a mopey Felicity Jones, from the upcoming Rogue One), has him stay with mean grandma (Sigourney Weaver, in a questionable British accent), because his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in America. To handle these difficult situations he summons a Monster from a nearby yew tree, and through him channels both his own anger and creativity.

The Monster is supposed to be symbolic of Conner’s inner demons. Or of his mother’s creativity. Or the figment of someone’s vivid imagination after ingesting certain substances. Take your pick. In Pan’s Labyrinth fashion, The Monster (Liam Neeson) brings three stories to Conner, and issues a warning about what’s to follow: Conner will then have to tell the tree the truth of what he’s been seeing in his dreams. The stories are meant to convey life lessons, and are beautifully animated with ravish water colors. But their central thrust is muddled, and the movie losses you from the get go.

The thrust of the fables is that human beings are complex and that we should not look for easy “moral of the story”s in parables. But that message does not come across organically as the tree narrates them, requiring instead that they be served on a platter both to the Conner and to the viewer. A king was a murderer but also beloved by his people, a fabulist was a liar but also well-intentioned. The ultimate message one is supposed to derive from this is that it is normal to feel conflicted about wanting your mother’s suffering to end and not wanting to lose her. A strawman of a point—no one would ever fault a child for feeling that conflict. Patrick Ness’s adaptation of his own novel, the catharsis he seems to be searching for with the story, is hard to sympathize with.

And the reference to Pan’s Labyrinth is not superfluous. A lot of the talented creative team behind that film, including the make-up artists and art directors, helped J.A. Bayona in this film. You can’t help but compare The Monster to the Faun, and the impending sense of doom that lingers in the air is also present. But, unlike the allegories in Guillermo del Toro’s film, the fairy tales at the heart of The Monster’s teaching to Conner do not have that emotional weight.

And unlike Conner, Ophelia was dealing both with loss as well as with the horrors of war. Conner, destroying priceless heirlooms and complaining about an uncomfortable bed, seems like a brat in comparison. Indeed, Conner resorts to histrionics and tantrums were Ophelia was resourceful and determinate. His grief is profound, no doubt, but the outlet of anger seems emotionally misplaced. This is, yet again, another example of a great novel that does not translate well onto the silver screen.

Bayona’s other films, The Impossible and The Orphanage, share a theme with his new work—emotional maturity through loss. And, unfortunately like his other films, A Monster Call suffers from that same clunky narrative that keeps pushing the viewer out.

There is a grand emotional finale—there wasn’t a dry eye at the TIFF press screening for this—and you cannot argue with the amazing effects that bring the yew tree to life. But this annoying pattern, that of adapting sprawling, beautiful novels, really has to come to an end. Unless you can find a cohesive way to retell the story on the big screen, the source material is best left alone on the printed page. And A Monster Calls decidedly does not find that needed footing.

Grade: C+

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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