Review – No Sap, but Plenty of Eye Moisture (“A Monster Calls”)

In this Holiday season movie glut of dastardly intergalactic flying space orbs, singing anthropomorphic animals, and attempted humor at office Christmas parties, this movie decided to go for the jugular and give us a tear-jerking family drama that even throws a little fantasy spin in for good measure.
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It’s not been easy for budding artist, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who lives in a quaint little village in England. Not only is he bullied at school, but his estranged father lives in L.A., his grandmother isn’t the nicest person alive, and his mother (Felicity Jones) is slowly dying of cancer. Yeah, he’s having a very rough time with life, until one night (or morning, depending on how you look at it) at 12:07am, something very weird happens. The giant yew tree down the street in the old church graveyard uproots itself and walks over to talk to Conor!
 
This ‘Monster’ (voiced by Liam Neeson) is Godzilla-sized and makes Groot look like a sickly twig. He tells Conor that he will tell him three stories after which Conor will have to tell him one… or else! Intrigued by this gigantic walking/talking ent, Conor listens and ‘sees’ the stories (beautiful animation by Spain’s Headless Productions) and is told life lessons from them; all endings are not what they appear to be. Events get worse and Conor’s dad, (Toby Kebbell) comes out to visit, while his acerbic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, attempting a British accent) moves the child into her pristine home in town. The Monster shows up (always at 12:07) and gives Conor another tale, sparking the kid to vent out his frustrations on his grandma’s living room.
 
While his mother is moved to the hospital to try another treatment, the Monster is helping Conor cope with the bullies at school using another tale. But things don’t get any better and in this ‘fairy tale’ and Conor must learn to face the harsh realities of what’s happening; harsh realities that he’s been denying all along. With the help of the giant wooden Monster at his side, and a tortuous nightmare come true, Conor comes face-to-face with his own mortality. Needless to say, you’ll need to bring a box of tissues with you for the climax.
 

With a blistering screenplay by Patrick Ness (based on his novel), the story walks that fine line between sci-fi fantasy and human drama and still manages to tell a solid story without going too campy or too fanciful. Conor’s life is mirrored all around him and his life is reflected in the words and monstrous (and sometimes grandfatherly) attitude of the Monster that may, or may not really exist. It’s a genuinely heart-warming and moving plot that doesn’t pull any punches, so if you’ve lost any loved ones, be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride towards the end.

Director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) knows drama and where to squeeze your heart to get you to fall apart; he’s that good. But the real find in this movie is the extraordinary Lewis MacDougall as Conor. This is only his second movie (he played a minor Lost Boy in Pan), but he shows powerful restraint and a touching old-soul passion for such a young age, that I hope we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

Jones, fresh off her Rogue One triumph, is also heart-breaking as the loving mother, succumbing to the deadly disease and fighting it for the sake of her son. Even with the sci-fi/fantasy element, the story may be an old one told over and over again, but here it’s given a fresh new coat of paint and made to look remarkable.

       

The NeverEnding Story (1984)
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What’s a kid with no friends and bullied at school to do? How about make friends with a giant flying dragon and read a book that will teach him life lessons in a far away land!? Yeah, that’ll do the trick! In this West German produced film, and based on the novel of the same name, we get one of the most endearing (and strangest) kids movies ever made.

Meet young Bastian Balthazar Bux (Barrett Oliver). His mother has just passed on, his dad (Gerald McRaney) doesn’t really want to talk about it, and he keeps retreating into a fantasy world. One day this shy, friendless, 12-year-old bookworm, after being teased by bullies, runs into a bookstore and meets, Mr. Coreander (Thomas Hill), the creepy bookseller.  Bastian asks about the book, The NeverEnding Story, but Mr. Coreander advises against it.

His curiosity piqued, Bastian steals the book and hides in the school’s attic to read it. The book describes the world of Fantasia slowly being devoured by a force called “the Nothing”. Fantasia’s ruler, the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach), has fallen ill, and young Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is tasked to discover the cure. But, as Atreyu sets out, the Nothing summons Gmork, a huge vicious wolf-like creature, to kill Atreyu.

Atreyu’s quest is not a happy one when he loses his faithful horse, Artax, in the Swamps of Sadness. Bastian, reading, is shocked that he is somehow known by the others in the story! The wise turtle, Morla, directs Atreyu the Southern Oracle where he is helped by the flying luck dragon, Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer). Falkor takes him to the home of two tiny gnomes that live near the Southern Oracle. The gnomes give sage advice to Atreyu, but when Atreyu finally faces the Oracle mirror, he sees a boy which Bastian recognizes as himself! WTH? Bastian throws the book aside… this is getting too weird. After catching his breath, he continues to read.

Atreyu learns the only way to save the Empress is to find a human child to give her a new name. Atreyu and Falkor flee before the Nothing consumes the Southern Oracle. Atreyu then meets the enormous Rock Biter, who laments the loss of his friends, Teeney Weeny (Deep Roy) and his racing snail, and Nightob (Tilo Pruckner) and his ‘stupid bat’. Soon Atreyu finds himself face-to-face with Gmork himself and the two battle. But after killing Gmork, the Nothing begins to consume everything and Falkor rescues Atreyu just in time. Just as Fantasia is about to be swallowed up, the Empress begs directly to Bastian to call out her new name (a ‘mother’ metaphor). Bastian, freaking out and consumed with the story, calls out the name he had selected, and faints.

When he wakes, Bastian finds himself with the Empress and, using his imagination, brings Fantasia back. Not only does Bastian re-creates Fantasia, but he flies on Falkor’s back and uses him to chase down the bullies from before. Directed and co-written by the great Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot, Air Force One), this is both one terrific movie and also a very odd movie as well. In the Fantasia world, the characters are all non-CGI and look especially quirky, using foam and SPFX rubber suits. The story, at times very dark and depressing, is both very adult and very kid-friendly; a rather odd combination! It spawned two sequels that were nowhere near as good as the first, but let’s face it, sequels seldom are, right?

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