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Stories Become Wild Creatures In A Monster Calls

Things are going pretty great for Patrick Ness, who wrote eight novels before becoming showrunner on Doctor Who spinoff series, Class. This week, his award-winning 2011 YA book, A Monster Calls, gets its theatrical debut—as envisioned by J.A. Bayona, the director recruited to helm next year’s Jurassic World sequel.

While there’s nothing prehistoric in A Monster Calls, there is a tree… a monstrous, ambulatory Liam Neeson-sounding tree. The actor voices the movie’s promised tree monster, calling nightly on a young boy (really excellent newcomer Lewis MacDougall) with an offering: true stories, beautifully animated in the film and evidently inspired by illustrations Jim Kay did for Ness’ novel. But the monster demands something in return—a true story of the boy’s own.

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It isn’t that 13-year-old Conor doesn’t have stories to tell—he’s bullied mercilessly at school, while at home he struggles to accept his father’s absence, the fact that the cancer his mother (Felicity Jones) has is terminal, and the idea that he may have to move in with his uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). The problem is that Conor can’t face the full truth of his situation. Knowing that you’ll have to say goodbye to your mother is one thing, admitting how you feel about it is another.

With everything that’s going on in his life, Conor has little room left over to be scared of a giant humanoid yew tree. Even one that shows up threatening him with… story time. But as the monster says, “stories are wild creatures” and soon the story world and the real world begin to intersect, with Conor at the centre of the conflict that creates.

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While aimed at the early teen demographic, A Monster Calls wrung tears (okay, sobs) out of more than a few hardened adult critics at the screening we attended. But there’s very little treacle here. More frequently, the movie offers moments of humour (Conor scoffs at the idea that a kingdom once flourished where his sleepy town now stands—it doesn’t even have a franchise of the ubiquitous British grocer, Tesco!) and insight (Ness turns a boring evil queen trope on its head, adding shades of grey to the black and white idea of good versus evil). Carefully, and with a distinct lack of heavy-handedness, the movie succeeds both as a genre film and a coming-of-age story.

A Monster Calls arrives in theatres wide Friday, January 6. Check out the trailer below:

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