A Monster Calls

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I am Groot?

Felicity Jones, who we recently saw in Inferno (Tom Hanks) and the latest Star Wars movie Rogue One (I loved her in Like Crazy five years ago) plays a mother dying of cancer. Her ex-husband (Toby Kebbell) is living in the United States, and the boy (Lewis MacDougall) is trying to deal with his lot in life. That means the usual cliches — a dying mom who’s always a sweetheart. The bullies that are always jerks and don’t seem to have any motivation for their bullying. Also, that one thing that’s always done in movies like this — escaping with your art. And for the boy, it’s drawing. Yet when an ancient yew tree he’s drawn has come to life, busting through his bedroom window — that’s when my wife and I started questioning things. First, the tree is voiced by Liam Neeson. That’s a bit distracting. I kept waiting for him to say, “I’ll get those bullies, with my special set of skills.”

My wife said, “Who is this movie for? It’s too scary for kids. Perhaps only a child that has lost, or is losing, a parent to cancer. This is all so…bleak.”

And she lost her parents at an early age. If anybody should be rooting for this film, it’s her.

I’d also add that it’s a bit too confusing for children as well. As for adults, it’s too much of a kids movie for them to truly enjoy.

The tree looks like Groot (Guardians of the Galaxy) on steroids, and we’ve seen all these things done better in other films. Unless you’re a fanboy that is obsessed with Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro, and the Iron Giant was your Citizen Kane, this is one you should skip.

Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) seems to be trying to go for a Spielberg/del Toro vibe, with a little “Giving Tree” thrown in. Certainly some of the visuals are stunning. Yet it all seems so calculated, especially when we first see Sigourney Weaver, and she’s speaking with a British accent. From that early point in the movie, everything just felt fake. The house they live in, the mom getting sicker, the various set pieces.

Patrick Ness wrote the screenplay, based on his novel.

The story has the tree visiting at the same time each day, with a different story each time (some of the animation in the stories is interesting, provided by Adrian Garcia of Headless). The only stipulation is that after the third story is told, the boy must tell the tree a story, and it must be “the truth.” Oh boy. Get ready for a lesson, folks. An obvious one, too. Yet I was surprised at how many critics were taken by Kubo and the Two Strings, which started out well, and went downhill fast. This movie got the same reaction from me, and yet critics will surely praise it. Perhaps they’ll feel the message that “grieving is okay” and “overcome your nightmares” is so important, it doesn’t matter that the whole thing is too dark and uninteresting.

There’s a third story the tree tells about a boy that’s invisible. We’re not given a story within a story on that one, but we do see the boy finally beat up his bullying tormentor (in a scene reminiscent of the much better Perks of Being a Wallflower).

So much of this movie made me think of films I loved, that were so much better. An ending with a notebook that was a bit like Up (and was one of the few things in the movie that worked). A boy that reminded me of the terrific protagonist of the Welsh film Submarine. And on the subject of other movies…Sigourney Weaver’s better “tree movie” was Avatar; and when it comes to trees coming to life, I’ll take the French/Australian movie The Tree from five years ago. It was the story of a father that died, and the wife and son thinking his spirit was in the tree they had in their front yard. It was a brilliant picture.

This movie never really resonated with me, and it was manipulative. The characters weren’t that interesting, and somebody needs to explain why adult characters never see when a child is in pain in movies. Are they that oblivious?

From the commercials, and early buzz this film was receiving…I thought it would be a heart-warming and magical experience. It was just too ambitious and combined genres poorly.

It has a good performance from young Lewis MacDougall, and there’s a lovely orchestrated score from Fernando Velazquez. Everything else was disappointing.

It gets 1 ½ stars out of 5.