A MON­STER CALLS

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - DAN JOLIN

DI­REC­TOR J.A. Bay­ona CAST Lewis Macdougall, Felic­ity Jones, Sigour­ney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Liam Nee­son

PLOT Twelve-year-old English boy Conor O’mal­ley (Macdougall) gets bul­lied at school. His fa­ther (Kebbell) lives in Cal­i­for­nia and his mother (Jones) is ter­mi­nally ill. But he finds a sort of com­pan­ion­ship with a gi­gan­tic, sto­ry­telling tree-crea­ture (voiced by Nee­son) who seem­ingly holds the se­cret to sav­ing his mum.

IT’S DIF­FI­CULT TO think of a film more brazen than A Mon­ster Calls. With its reg­u­lar tran­si­tions from gloomy real-world drama to earthy fairy tale and its nar­ra­tive fo­cus on a trou­bled child, it can’t help but be com­pared with 2006’s el­e­gant dark-fan­tasy Pan’s

Labyrinth. And that’s a high com­par­i­son. That Barcelona-born di­rec­tor J.A. Bay­ona and Pan’s man Guillermo del Toro have been friends since the early ’90s (del Toro ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced Bay­ona’s de­but fea­ture The Or­phan­age) only fur­ther pushes the com­par­i­son. But while its cen­tral crea­ture may be larger and far more de­struc­tive than the freak­ish fiends of del Toro’s

Labyrinth, A Mon­ster Calls is ac­tu­ally a much gen­tler film — less thriller and more weepie.

Cre­atively it bears none of del Toro’s fin­ger­prints, based in­stead on a novel by Amer­i­can young-adult writer Pa­trick Ness — who also wrote the script — which it­self was con­ceived by au­thor Siob­han Dowd shortly be­fore she died. So there is an acutely poignant, in­tensely per­sonal core to the film, which Bay­ona han­dles sen­si­tively; for as well as be­ing a heart-squeez­ing por­trayal of a fiercely imag­i­na­tive boy deal­ing with his young mother’s mor­tal­ity, it also ex­plores the power of sto­ry­telling.

Much of this is done by the Liam Neeson­voiced Mon­ster of the ti­tle (hav­ing the one-time As­lan and Zeus give vo­cal life to a mil­len­nia-old na­ture god is about as nailed-on as cast­ing gets). Af­ter ir­ri­ta­bly re­mov­ing his church­yard yew-tree dis­guise and lop­ing strop­pily over to Conor’s bed­room win­dow, this tow­er­ing über-groot prom­ises to tell the kid three rev­e­la­tory sto­ries in ex­change for one from him, in which Conor will have to tell “the truth”. The Mon­ster’s sto­ries in­tro­duce a third layer of nar­ra­tive, where the ac­tion shifts to an­i­ma­tion, ren­dered in a unique, vis­ually ap­peal­ing style that some­how feels like wa­ter­colours done as stop mo­tion, fea­tur­ing

Princess Bride-style in­ter­jec­tions from Conor, irked by the way the tales defy com­fort­ably cut-and-dried in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Whether A Mon­ster Calls should be con­sid­ered a chil­dren’s film or adults’ film about child­hood is un­cer­tain. There’s a good chance it’ll play too young for many grown-ups, while it may prove too emo­tion­ally raw for younger view­ers, es­pe­cially dur­ing its fi­nal scenes. It would be a shame if it fell be­tween these two posts, be­cause Bay­ona’s artistry is as im­pres­sive as his and Ness’ clear re­fusal to soften on any harsher plot points. Bay­ona re­veals Lewis Macdougall as a tal­ent to be reck­oned with, whether we’re watch­ing the wan tyke square up against his for­mi­da­ble grand­mother (Weaver) or, in­deed, that gi­ant tree-man.

Not that the Nee­son-voiced crea­ture is truly the mon­ster of the ti­tle. That would be grief it­self. Which is why, if you let the film in, it’s un­likely to let you leave the cin­ema with dry eyes.

VER­DICT Part fairy tale/crea­ture fea­ture/ do­mes­tic melo­drama, this adds up to far more than a ‘one boy and his mon­ster’ story — and is a tougher emo­tional jour­ney as a re­sult.

Was Crème De La Mer re­ally worth £100 a pop, he pon­dered.

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