As I don’t “do” kiddie movies for the most part, Juan Antonio Bayona‘s A Monster Calls (Focus, 12.23) just isn’t for me. If the family trade decides to love it and spread the word, great…knock yourselves out. But it made me feel as if a little mosquito virus had gotten into my brain. I was thinking about sneaking out less than half-hour in.
Patrick Ness‘s 2011 novel is a respected fable about a young lad (Lewis MacDougall) with a sick mom (Felicity Jones) who gets to know a friendly tree giant whom no one else can see, at least not initially. The giant, of course, is a metaphor for the fervent imagination of a boy coping with grief and the cruel pestering of classmates. And after the tree giant tells three tales, the lad must stand up and tell his own…I’m sorry, where was I?
If only the gifted Bayona hadn’t decided to ignore the kind of subtle, tingly approach that made The Orphanage (’07), which he directed with the alliance of producer Guillermo del Toro, such a brilliant classic. But he has. It’s like Bayona’s Spanish-speaking self directed The Orphanage and his wily, opportunistic, Hollywood-fellating twin brother flew to the States and directed A Monster Calls.
Clearly aimed at the easily impressed, A Monster Calls is expensively CG-ed but grossly unsubtle — it insists on spelling out every little plot turn and implication in underlined boldface. I’m sorry but any film that starts off by immersing the viewer in a seriously nightmarish scenario only to show the main protagonist suddenly waking up from said nightmare, sweat-soaked and hyperventilating…well, that’s a cliche. And so the film must be automatically dismissed. I’m sorry but that’s a hard and fast rule.
Fucking tree monster with Liam Neeson‘s electronically-treated voice…gimme a break. Liam paycheck tree-monster Neeson standing 60 feet in the night air, addressing McDougall’s Conor O’Malley character over and over as “Conor O’Malley, Conor O’Malley, Conor O’Malley”…what do you have against informality, Liam? You can’t ease up and call the kid just plain “Conor”?
I hate to deprive myself of Focus Features Phase One ad revenues but what am I supposed to do, say I loved it? What if I say that the design is unrelievedly storybookish and that the tech credits are very exacting but cartoonish, and it’s therefore sure to satisfy every eight year-old out there? And that it may do pretty well box-office-wise? Kids have no taste for the most part so why not?
Q: How good is Felicity Jones as a cancer-afflicted mom? A: She’s fine as far as it goes, but she’s unfortunately giving her performance in a parent punisher that gives you a splitting headache.