In the exchange that opens A Monster Calls, a narrative dialogue between Conor (Lewis MacDougall) and the Monster (Liam Neeson, whose voice has been digitally altered to sound menacing) that talks about a boy who was, paraphrased, too young to be a man, but too old to be a kid. It’s a clear reference to the kid that the monster’s talking to, and with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, sets itself up to bookend the film.
With the pesky question of wondering how the movie is going to end out of the way, all that’s left to do is try and buckle in and endure almost two full hours of tearjerker porn before that quote comes up again.
After a lush, beautiful credits sequence, the film steamrolls through its setup so forcefully it’s almost like it has blinders on. Conor’s a troubled kid, he gets bullied in school, his mother (Felicity Jones) is sick with terminal cancer. He also keeps having a nightmare about trying to save her from a fall, then failing, so at least the degree of subtlety here is consistent.
One night, he conjures up a monster out of a giant tree he can see out his bedroom window. Now, I acknowledge that the idea of a walking tree monster is going to limit a production designer, creatively speaking, but that doesn’t stop the monster from looking like an oversized Groot from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Anyway, Not-Groot, shows up and warns Conor he’ll tell him three stories, and Conor will tell him a fourth. What could that possibly mean? Well, it turns out, the fourth story will be about his nightmare, as Not-Groot explains, killing any kind of curiosity that might have accidentally been created had they left that ambiguous.
So, Not-Groot shows up periodically, and tells him fairy tales without a clear metric of right or wrong, of morality or justice or even a valuable lesson learned. It’s (almost) the movie’s most intriguing aspect, especially when coupled with the lush, watercolor-style animation that weaves these tales together.
Unfortunately, any morsel of thought-provoking nuance has to be squashed with some kind of blunt exposition, like when Not-Groot explains to Conor that there are no good guys or bad guys in real life, that we all fall “somewhere in the middle.” Yeah thanks, Not-Groot.
Speaking of blunt exposition, each new tale begins to tie in with Conor’s real-life storyline more directly, and the parallels between a kid dealing with the grief of losing his mother (Felicity Jones) and a kid who talks to an eight-story tall talking tree monster start to take shape.
It’s not that the movie’s intentions aren’t pure, and it’s impossible not to think about the fact that the story is based on the last effort undertaken by author Siobhan Dowd before she died of cancer back in 2007. But even the noblest intentions can’t save the this clunky, ham-handed tale of dubious morality.
Granted, there’s a possibility that I’m an outlier here, of course, as the entire last third of the movie I was surrounded by people actively fighting back tears while I kept wondering how many times Not-Groot was going to scream “this isn’t where the tale ends” before this god-forsaken movie would make good on its promise.
It’s not like I’m immune to such things, either. I even started thinking back to movies like Terms of Endearment or those Sarah McLachlan commercials with the dogs in an effort to procure some kind of connection to an audience that seemed genuinely moved by an overwhelmingly uninspiring story. Alas, every bit of incremental progress in starting to well-up I had was undone by something someone said or did in what was supposed to be the emotional climax of a movie about a kid losing his mother to cancer.
Believe me, I was surprised, too.
By the time the movie ends (and boy, does it ever take its sweet fucking time ending), all I was left was my own empty, apathetic reaction to an emotionally empty film. Somehow, despite a clumsy attempt to explore the universal theme of loss and grief had only managed to move me far enough to consider ripping out a nose hair just so I wouldn’t look like the only person in the theater who wasn’t crying.
A Monster Calls is now playing in theaters everywhere.