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'A Monster Calls' offers solid storytelling but is questionable for kids

“A Monster Calls” – “Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

J.A. Bayona directed the tsunami disaster epic “The Impossible” (2012), and in 2017, he focuses his efforts on a calamity on a much smaller scale but just as personal to the characters. Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is about 12, and he struggles to make friends but finding a buddy to play checkers with is the very least of his problems. His mother (Felicity Jones) is sick with cancer, and he is equally sick with grief. They are very close, and Mum shows great affection for Conor, while also dealing with her relationship with death, and it is almost as close.

With an ungodly amount of emotional turmoil thrown on the narrow shoulders of a preteen, Conor turns to his imagination for escape, and it creates a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). The Monster actually is an old tree coming to life, which high resembles Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), and quite frankly, the comparisons are uncanny. Unfortunately, this does prove to be a massive distraction. When The Monster says, “I will tell you three stories,” one could swear that he would end the sentence with “I am Groot.”

Be that as it may, the very intimidating monster routinely reveals himself at 12:07 a.m. and terrorizes/befriends the boy by reciting these three stories with important, cryptic life lessons at the heart of each. This is Conor’s journey.

Although “A Monster Calls” centers its story around a child and the film deals with some Dungeons & Dragons-like fantasy, this film is not for elementary school-aged kids. My niece is 10, and nothing in my imagination could concoct a reason to take her to this film.

Absolutely nothing.

The screenplay deals with the very real prospect of a mother’s death and contains disturbing imagery, like the repeated scene of a church – with dozens and dozens of coffins and headstones – falling into an open crevice created by some demon from Hades.

All of the fire and brimstone does ultimately serve a purpose, and Bayona (who also directed the fabulous but creepy “The Orphanage” (2007)) knows how to deliver stunning and menacing visuals, but he - along with MacDougall’s convincing performance – bring much sympathy and compassion to Conor’s plight.

Conor, of course, has to turn to his own thoughts, because his support structure outside of his home leaves much to be desired. Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) seems generally icy, and Dad (Toby Kebbell) lives across the pond in Los Angeles. They both do both care for Conor, and that does shine through to the audience, but the two are of little use and comfort to a boy who lives in fear of the future.

Well, in the present, “A Monster Calls” is an emotional story and effectively delivers the messages it sets out to convey. It is also a puzzler, with a very unclear target audience. The film is thankfully rated PG-13, and I suppose it is recommended to anyone (above the age of 13) who appreciates solid filmmaking and some imagination.

(3/4 stars)

Focus Features

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