From its elegant title to its unexpectedly edgy tone, A Monster Calls makes its own way. There is magic, real magic here, and if it doesn’t manifest itself in every frame, it’s just going to have to be that way.
The story of a small boy who must learn adult lessons about life and letting go and leans for help on a terrifying creature embodied by Liam Neeson, Monster is almost too ambitious to be completely realized. But when it works, which is most of the time, its story has a power which lingers in the mind.
Monster comes by its singularity honestly. Directed by J.A. Bayona, it’s a gently spooky hybrid, mixing any number of elements — fable and reality, animation and live action, special effects and sincerity — in a way that, not surprisingly, is intended for both children and adults. Only the fierce bond of honest emotion keeps it from flying apart right in front of us.
This duality starts at the very beginning, with an idea for a novel that came to British young-adult writer Siobhan Dowd when she was dying of cancer. Another author, Patrick Ness, was inspired by the idea and agreed to take it on.
The result was a modern classic that has been published in close to 40 languages. It did more than win the Carnegie Medal for Ness: illustrator Jim Kay, whose images are a strong influence on the film, won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his artwork, the first time one book has won both of these venerable awards.
Spanish filmmaker Bayona, whose previous work includes The Orphanage and the tsunami-themed The Impossible, has always been a gifted visual director, and that is very much a factor in making A Monster Calls a success.
But here he’s been helped by some strong acting, not just by Rogue One star Felicity Jones as a young mother with a terrible disease, but especially by the odd-couple combination of newcomer Lewis MacDougall as her 12-year-old son, Conor O’Malley, and the 64-year-old veteran Neeson as the monster in question.
Set in a bleak season in the cheerless north of England, the film begins with what we come to recognize as one of Conor’s recurrent nightmares: an austere nearby church and its graveyard collapse into an enormous gaping crater that is threatening to swallow his mother as well.
As both parent and child scream in terror, he loses his grip on his mother and she starts to disappear into the abyss.
Waking with the proverbial start, the clearly distraught Conor does things not usual for 12-year-olds on school days: He makes his own breakfast, gets the laundry started and looks in on his sleeping mother, whose wan look and short hair signal the seriousness of the unnamed disease she is suffering from.
At school, things do not improve, as Conor can’t concentrate on his studies and is bullied unmercifully by a handful of thuggish louts.
Back home, though there is a lovely interlude of watching the original King Kong with his mother on old 16mm equipment, Conor has an additional worry. It’s the thought of having to move in with his obdurate grandmother (an unconvincing Sigourney Weaver), a toe-the-line type he feels no connection to.
Then in the dead of night, he hears a voice calling out “Conor O’Malley, Conor O’Malley” in deep, disturbing tones that seem to come from another dimension.
Looking out his upstairs window, he (and we) are beyond shocked to see a large yew tree in that churchyard magically metamorphosize into an enormous, 40-foot-tall tree monster, made of roots and branches with fire burning inside, a dour and relentless being with a mission on his mind.
Making the ground shake as he approaches, the monster presents Conor with an agenda. He will return on consecutive nights and tell the boy three stories, after which the tables will be turned: “You will tell me a fourth and it will be the truth. Your truth.”
Referencing that Conor likes to draw, the monster’s three tales are presented in vivid animation created by the Spanish firm Headless Productions. But though they enchant visually, these are oblique, opaque tales that do not initially make sense to the boy.
Not only the stories are wonderfully conveyed, so is the beast itself. Bayona has wisely chosen to use practical effects whenever possible, mandating that full-scale animatronic versions of the monster’s head and shoulders, arms, hands and feet be created out of foam.
While the monster/Conor moments never falter, not all the other elements in the story register as strongly. Still, when the chips are down, especially in the ending, everyone rises to the occasion, especially the monster.
Both real and a reflection of Conor’s mental state, the creature is not meant to be seen as a representative of another world but part of us, adversary and guardian spirit all rolled into one.
Conor is fortunate to have him around, and so are we.
A Monster Calls
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall
Rated: PG-13 (some thematic content, scary images)
Running time: 108 min.