Friday, January 6, 2017

A MONSTER CALLS: In J.A. Bayona's visually resplendent film, a child handles grief and loss

Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona may never have made an out-and-out blockbuster, so far as American audiences are concerned, but he has also never made an uninteresting movie. From The Orphanage through The Impossible, onto a couple of episodes of the masterful Penny Dreadful (if you have not watched this series, one of the best-written to hit cable TV, you must: It's streamable now on Netflix) to his newest work, A MONSTER CALLS, the manner in which Bayona handles what seems to be his favorite theme -- children-in-trouble -- grows ever more masterful.

The filmmaker, pictured at left, combines knockout visuals with psychologically adept portraits of people in trouble, and the result is a movie that offers both special effects and genre thrills along with unusual emotional weight. His latest film, I would posit, is his best so far. And yet, I would also posit that it, too, will be no blockbuster. But it will intrigue and please -- on several levels -- most of the audience that manages to discover it. A Monster Calls is a beautifully conceived and realized tale of how a child learns to handle major and possibly devastating loss and grief.

In its handling of this theme, the film may bring to mind the recent remake of Pete's Dragon, and yet the two movies are very different. Bayona's is the darker and much more complex. It will give the children who see it plenty of impressive special effects to view, but it will also offer quite a challenge in terms of understanding the lessons that the titular monster imparts to the child.

That child, Conor (above), is played by a terrific young actor named Lewis McDougall (who made his screen debut just last year as Nibs in Pan), and the monster who takes him in hand and seems to have burst fully-formed from a giant old tree is voiced by Liam Neeson (below). It's a great combination, made even more productive and exciting by the extraordinary visuals Bayona and his team have created.

In addition to having to deal with the increasing sickness and encroaching death of his mother (another lovely job by Felicity Jones, below), Conor is bullied at school and is saddled with an absentee dad,

as well as a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, below) whose cold demeanor seems to offer little comfort or help. The movie manages to combine its necessary "lessons" with enough visual pizazz, warmth, charm and energy to keep its slightly-too-long running time properly atmospheric and effective.

Will the film prove too much for younger children? Maybe. Older and/or more mature kids should find it worth the challenge and maybe even memorable. Adults may very well appreciate it even more.

From Focus Features, the movie opens nationwide today, Friday, January 6. Focus' web site for the film is no help in providing playdates, cities or theaters in which the film is showing. Click here for the Fandango site for the film and/or tickets.

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