A Monster Calls (PG-13)

Comedy 128 min. January 6, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
Parents be warned: J. A. Bayona and Patrick Ness' kid-meets-beast coming-of-age fantasy is a reclamation of fairy stories from the reassuring fiction of happily ever after. This tale of a bullied Irish boy whose imaginary friend is a talking yew tree might look like any number of huggable E.T. rip-offs. But the sky-tall talking yew tree in A Monster Calls (directed by Bayona and scripted by Ness, based on his own novel) has teeth. Or thorns, at least. The film is tough-minded, often grim and intense, its lessons hard in ways you aren't conditioned to expect from pricey CGI entertainments.

Liam Neeson -- who voices the tree -- intones lines like "Many things that are true feel like a cheat." He speaks thus to Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a friendless Irish schoolboy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. You parents may be terrified, but older children will be fine. They might also relish the stark, restless watercolor renderings of a trio of fairy tales that giant tells young Conor. The tales are prickly and mean, like unexpurgated Grimms. Conor quails: What is the lesson in them?

Meanwhile, he's bullied at school and can't get along with the grandmother he's packed off to live with. Her home is full of rooms kids mustn't play in, but she's played by Sigourney Weaver, so you know she'll be a person rather than a caricature.

It's when Conor gives in to the giant's destructive impulses in real life that A Monster Calls is at its most thrilling and dangerous. Has any kids movie since the original Willy Wonka so persuasively demonstrated the terribleness of acting out the fantasies kids' movies endorse?
Juan Antonio Bayona Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver Patrick Ness Belen Atienza Focus Features

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