Inspired by a dying mother whose story idea blossomed into an award-winning book, A Monster Calls is a serious fable about a young hero who, as the movie tells us, is “too old to be a child, too young to be a man.” One could say something similar about the film itself, an unhappy tale of a boy who feels isolated at home is bullied at school and afraid of the future. We’re meant to see the film from his point of view but the results are decidedly uneven.

Lewis MacDougall plays 12-year-old Conor, whose parents are divorced. His mother (Felicity Jones) is in and out of hospital battling a pernicious disease and can’t give him the attention—or more importantly, the comfort—he needs. She clings to hope but he has trouble sharing her fragile optimism. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is cold and too upset by her daughter’s condition to muster any kindness toward Conor. Then one night a gigantic, gnarly yew tree rustles to life and comes to Conor’s window, insistent on telling him a sequence of three stories after which he demands that the boy provide his own: the truth inside his head, which comes to him as a recurring nightmare.

The tree monster is a magnificent creation, voiced and acted in motion capture form by Liam Neeson. But his stories, though stylishly animated, are inscrutable and only make sense at the very end of the film.

We’ve seen lonely boys like Conor all too often onscreen and suffered through many a parent’s illness. It’s the fantasy component that distinguishes A Monster Calls, but the creature’s significance isn’t crystal clear—to Conor or to us in the audience.

Spanish director J.A. Bayona is a gifted filmmaker, which is apparent to anyone who saw The Orphanage or his English-language debut feature The Impossible. He clearly cares about his characters and not just the visual effects that surround them in this sincere telling of Patrick Ness’ novel, which the author adapted for the screen. (It, in turn, was based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd.)

I wanted to be swept up in the emotions of the piece but I never was. I cry easily at movies, yet this one kept me at a distance, perhaps because it covers such familiar ground. A Mon ster Calls has its heart in the right place but I felt like an outsider looking in rather than someone vicariously experiencing the story of its troubled protagonist.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024