‘A Monster Calls’ a very grim fairy tale

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Talking to imaginary friends is not necessarily viewed as a good thing. And, there could be monsters under your bed or in the closet, but crawling under the covers is usually sufficient protection from any such beast. Now, “A Monster Calls,” so we have a monster that is a young boy’s imaginary friend; or is he?

Too old to be a kid and too young to be an adult, Conor O’Malley, played by 14 year-old Scottish actor Lewis MacDougall, faces more challenges than anyone should encounter. The message, in this three-hanky tearjerker, is that nobody has a corner on the world’s problems. No matter how difficult, we must address our issues. The boy is the star, but the very serious and mature fairy tale has nothing to do with the tooth fairy.

Based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, the book was originally started by Siobhan Dowd, who passed away during its writing. She wanted to share the touching story about a boy who has been damaged and feels guilty and angry. Conor struggles at school with bullies, at home with his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones) and is at odds with his overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).

As a defense mechanism, Conor’s subconscious mind conjures up a tree like monster. No, the monster’s first words were not, “I am Groot!” (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). Instead, it is the voice of Liam Neeson, who has a particular set of skills that might come in handy. In this case, the monster shares stories (parables) about life. However, none of these stories are cliché or predictable and even the good guy has his faults.

In one story, the handsome and admired prince is covertly evil, so the kingdom gets the prince it deserves. In the story about a man of faith without belief, we learn that it’s important what you do, not just what you believe. The monster shares “Stories are like wild animals, when you let them loose, you never know what happens.” And, “Humans are complicated beings so sometimes life ends messily ever after.”

Director J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) presents the tree monster as less monstrous and more a voice of reason and wisdom. You might say he is all bark and no bite. So, the nightmarish CGI effects seemed a bit overdone, but maybe that’s what it took to get our attention. On the other side, Boyona presents the monster’s stories in animated dreamlike sequences like they were painted in beautifully pastel watercolors.

As Conor, the young actor enjoys seamless chemistry with his dying mother and intimidating monster. Not a “Disney kid,” MacDougall generates sufficient pathos to pull the audience into the harsh realities of life and have us care about his outcome. Liam Neeson’s strong and comforting voice is well suited for the monster. If you remember, Neeson also provided the voice of the wise lion in “Chronicles of Narnia.”

The question isn’t if everything is going to be okay, but just how can Conor cope with life’s cruel realities? We must all learn that not every horrible condition can be resolved and not all wrongs can be righted. With so many dark, deeply moving thematic issues, the emotion is honest and audience does not feel manipulated. The well-crafted ending is effective and affective, but mostly worthy of the previous 90 minutes.

“A Monster Calls” is 108 minutes and rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images. This is not the feel good movie of the year, but an important message for older children and adults. Conor’s specific challenges were presented as illustrations of whatever issues a child (or any person) might face. The message is universal.

This picture is done so well, the dark human truths of loss, abandonment and coping might hit too close to home. We wonder why a fairy tale with a message needs to be so terrifying and heart wrenching, but that formula was exploited centuries ago by a couple brothers named Grimm. These stories send a beacon of hope through the darkness, but we must realize that beacon is not somewhere in the clouds, but deep within each of us.

Ron’s Rating: C+ Leigh’s Rating: B+

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Ron & Leigh Martel