Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls (Photo: Focus)

A MONSTER CALLS
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY J.A. Bayona
STARS Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson

Superior to The BFG but inferior to Pete’s DragonA Monster Calls is the latest release to detail the relationship between a young child and a fantastical creature. Unfortunately, it often skews closer to the calculated artifice of the Spielberg dud rather than the emotional honesty of the Disney remake, spinning a tale about a lonely British lad named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.

Coping with bullies at school and a crotchety grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) at home, Conor eventually receives a nocturnal visit from the talking tree that lives up on the hill. No, it’s not Treebeard from the Tolkien franchise but rather an ancient yew that sounds just like Liam Neeson when he delivers that great “particular set of skills” speech from Taken. The tree informs Conor that he will tell him three stories in exchange for Conor speaking his “truth” — a “truth” that becomes painfully obvious long before the fade-out.

Individual scenes crackle with flavor, but nearly as many segments turn out heavy-handed, with director J.A. Bayona — yet to top his debut feature, the Spanish horror yarn The Orphanage — more interested in carefully arranged sets and thundering effects than in anything more empathic. It’s hard to become completely invested in a movie about holding onto life when its creators are so focused on art-directing it to death.

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