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‘A Monster Calls’ is a moving portrait of grief, with troubling special effects

A Monster (voiced and performed by Liam Neeson) visits a 12-year-old (Lewis MacDougall) to tell him fantastical tales and help the boy understand the world.
A Monster (voiced and performed by Liam Neeson) visits a 12-year-old (Lewis MacDougall) to tell him fantastical tales and help the boy understand the world. .

Arguably the saddest movie of the past year, “A Monster Calls” delivers a mature message about grief packaged as a special effects-driven fantasy for kids.

Yet the sadness is earned. It’s not just the dark subject that defines this tearjerker; it’s the sincere empathy the viewer develops for the characters. Impeccably staged, framed, lit and shot, “A Monster Calls” is a moving story that supplies genuine life lessons.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor: “A boy too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man.”

The friendless 12-year-old attends a British school with Harry Potter-type uniforms but no hint of magic to relieve the dreary routine. And bullies loathe how Conor is usually off in his “own little dream world.”

Conor retreats into his fanciful artwork because life is even worse at home. His lovely mother (“Rogue One” star Felicity Jones) suffers through chemotherapy. His absentee father (Toby Kebbell) enjoys a separate life in Los Angeles. And his frosty grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, wrestling an English accent) doesn’t really connect with him.

As if that isn’t enough, he’s plagued by the recurring nightmare of vainly trying to save his mom from plummeting to her death. Then one night he’s visited in his dreams by the huge tree that usually sits at the edge of a churchyard outside his bedroom window. This Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) looks like a cross between a yew tree and a volcano, with a knotted visage and red flames for blood.

The giant informs the alarmed Conor that he will return four times. On the first three visits, he will tell the boy a story. The fourth time, Conor must tell him a story that divulges the true meaning behind the nightmare.

“A Monster Calls” sprang from an idea by author Siobhan Dowd, who was dying from cancer. In 2011, Patrick Ness turned her idea into a best-selling book, and he also pens the screenplay.

Their work goes far beyond a simplistic allegory. The behemoth’s tales involve fantasy kingdoms of princes and witches as well as more grounded fables regarding apothecaries and holy men.

Spanish director J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”) presents these as animated watercolor drawings. The talented filmmaker (who is helming the next “Jurassic Park” sequel) reveals in shrewd and unexpected ways how all this ambiguous material relates to Conor’s life. “There is not always a good guy,” the Monster explains. “Nor is there always a bad one.”

That concept runs as an undercurrent throughout the picture, whether describing the Monster or the 16 mm version of “King Kong” the family watches. Or cancer itself.

This is an intimate movie concerning one person’s way of coping. But the effects are noisy and overstuffed. They’re also very familiar. The Monster is the same type of walking tree creature already rendered in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Not to imply it would be better to have somebody dressed up in a tree costume like those who throw apples at Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Though at least that would seem more tangible.

Almost everything the Monster says in this poignant film conveys great wisdom, weight and resonance. But in terms of being a monster, he’s a stale digital distraction.

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

‘A Monster Calls’

Rated PG-13. Time: 1:48.

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