Death and dying is always an interesting subject to visit in film. Directors skirt existentialism, redemption, mystical and spiritual themes and every known device to discuss the dreaded end of life subject.


Those that succeed quite often go the tearjerker route even when it's not necessary. "Terms of Endearment", "Fault of Our Stars", "Love Story", "Titantic" and "Amour" are some notable tearjerkers covering the subject. But we often find the few that managed to take a straightforward look also entertaining. "The Bucket List" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" are two that come to mind kept things matter of fact and eschewed the Kleenex.

Things get a bit dicier when it comes to confronting death in a children's film. Disney famously throws the death scene in the early scenes and gets it over - "Bambi", "A Good Dinosaur", and "Up" are prime examples. That's fine for the death part, but doesn't confront the dying aspect; the prolonged period leading up to death.


Director J.A Bayona (whom we last saw in "The Impossible"), takes a stab at adapting Patrick Ness's novel A Monster Calls which describes the journey of one boy who must come to terms that his mother is dying.


Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is faced with his mother's (Felicity Jones) on going cancer issues. She already has it when the film opens, so we don't have to deal with a discovery examinations and a bunch of medical dialog. We don't have to go through the mother's angst of learning of her condition; she already has it and is dealing with it.

Conor is not being shielded, but he is more optimistic than he should be. He doessn't want his mother to die. Moreover he doesn't want to go live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who is totally different from his mom; she is more hardline as to how live will be for Conor once he's under her care.


In response, Conor is visited by an imposing monster tree that has been lurking nearby. The tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) comes to life to help Conor cope with several aspects of his life including his mothers impending death, his life as ward of his grandmother, the other boys that bully him.


The tree monster tells Conor stories that are illustrated with fanciful watercolors that often splatter like a Jackson Pollock painting. But the stories are harsh, grim fables where the heroes die and evil wins - not the type of stories Conor is expecting but perhaps Conor is needing to cope.


And cope he musts as his personality and Gandma's clash with him destroying her favorite room in her very pristine home. In the background you can sense the tree monster somehow spying and feeling satisfied that Conor is releasing his anger. When Conor's father returns, there is even more of an emotional release. To that end, the film is definitely something that older kids will be able to relate, yet you can't help but feel the film is targeting younger children.


The animation is off-the-hook and the acting is taught. However because of its dark nature, parent will have to decide what they feel their young child can handle.


"A Monster Calls" is an inventive and imaginative, but dark children's film that discusses death and dying without sugar coating it. It succeeds by not turning to Kleenex soaking mush to get it's message across.   -- GEOFF BURTON