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‘A Monster Calls’: Clinging to a tree as a cruel world closes in

Lewis MacDougall is shadowed by a monstrous yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) in “A Monster Calls.”
Lewis MacDougall is shadowed by a monstrous yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) in “A Monster Calls.” Focus Features

The formidable creature looming over “A Monster Calls,” directed by J.A. Bayona, is one of the more unnerving special-effects creations of 2016. Whether it and the movie are too intense for younger children is something parents need to ask themselves. A PG-13 rating is sometimes an overreaction to a curse word or two, but here it’s a useful caution.

The central human character is a 12-year-old boy, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who as the movie opens is having one heck of a nightmare: He and his mother (Felicity Jones) are in a churchyard as the ground begins collapsing, and she is in danger of being sucked into an abyss. No subtlety or pussyfooting around here; we soon learn that the mother is fatally ill and in the midst of a drawn-out death.

If the opening moments are striking, what comes next is even more so: Conor’s imagination calls forth a monstrous yew tree that talks (voiced by Liam Neeson). It is an impressive cinematic creation, and it leads Conor on a journey intended to help him confront the realities he faces and his innermost thoughts about them.

Those realities do not merely involve his dying mother. He is being bullied at school. He has issues with his father (Toby Kebbell), who left the family years ago and started another far away. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to live with her, but he finds her cold and off-putting.

That’s a lot to load onto one boy — too much, really. The story seems to be trying to check every box on the Things That Might Trouble a Child list, when “dying parent” is quite enough.

To “overstuffed” you could also add “overblown.” Yes, children can have vivid imaginations, but Conor’s visions seem too big for his preteen head.

The monster, who Conor soon realizes is there to help, not harm him, tells the boy three stories, none of them delivering pat messages or answers. It’s a short course in the complexities and contradictions of life.

“There is not always a good guy, Conor O’Malley,” the tree tells him, “nor is there always a bad one.”

The goal is to induce Conor to tell his own story, to admit to himself what he feels and wants. When he finally does, a frightening climactic scene brings the boy some closure, or at least some understanding of how to cope with a world that can be harsh.

It’s a catharsis painted with bold, noisy imagery, one that makes death an overwhelming tsunami. If you prefer to view dying as a natural part of life, a step in a cycle, this film will feel discordant and perhaps counterproductive. But visually it will stick with you, and your children.

Movie review

‘A Monster Calls’

Rated PG-13 for some thematic content and scary images. 1:48. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.

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