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Review: When ‘A Monster Calls,’ pick up

Grim children’s tale has inventive visuals and doesn’t shy away from its difficult subject matter

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“A Monster Calls” is a fantastical children’s tale with grown-up elements that recalls the inventive, imaginative work of directors Guillermo Del Toro or Tim Burton, and is a better movie than either of them have made in years.

The Monster (Liam Neeson) and Lewis MacDougall in “A Monster Calls.”

It tells the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a boy “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man,” whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. He’s also picked on at school and doesn’t get along with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). When he retreats into the recesses of his mind, he befriends a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who tells him stories and provides some much-needed comfort.

The monster, a yew tree in the distance outside Conor’s bedroom window, is like a super-sized version of “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Groot, and he manages to be menacing and gentle at once. He’s a captivating creature and is more appealing than Steven Spielberg’s “BFG” in terms of giants who’ve befriended children in recent cinema.

When a boy retreats into the recesses of his mind, he befriends a giant tree monster in “A Monster Calls.”

Director J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”), building on a script by Patrick Ness (based on his own 2011 novel), works with a remarkable visual palate, using muted colors to create an old-fashioned looking dreamscape. (The Del Toro influence is clear; he was a producer on Bayona’s first film, “The Orphanage.”)

It’s not an easy sell; this is a tough movie that takes on adult issues and doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of its subject matter. But that’s what makes this grim children’s story work. It’s a work of lovely darkness.

agraham@detroitnews.com

‘A Monster Calls’

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images

Running time: 108 minutes