A Monster Calls is deliberately more moving than scary
A Monster Calls, a fantasy drama about a boy and his (not so) friendly neighborhood yew-tree monster, follows a well-trod path of adolescent anguish. Yet it manages to feel resonant and worthwhile, thanks in no small measure to a healthy dose of magic realism provided by director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter/novelist Patrick Ness.
Conor is a quiet, lonely boy growing up in small-town England. An artist at heart, he has an additional burden: his mother is dying. With an emotionally distant grandmother and a geographically distant father, Conor has no one with whom to share his sorrow. Plagued by violent, recurring nightmares about the imminent loss of his mom, he somehow conjures up a monster from a craggy old yew tree in the churchyard outside his window. The monster, through a series of nightly visits—always at 12:07—and the seemingly tangential stories he tells, helps Conor work through his flurry of crippling emotions to a place of acceptance, both of his situation and of himself.
The familiar tropes of A Monsters Calls’ core narrative—lonely only child, art as a form of escape, prep school bullies, absent fathers—quickly cede ground to Bayona’s confident, baroque filmmaking. Previously recognized for his sweeping work on The Impossible, Bayona injects this story with the fantastical elements of the yew monster and his stories, which are told through a lovely, watercolor-like style of animation that is the antithesis of a cartoon. And the monster itself, growlingly voice-acted by Liam Neeson, is an arboreal marvel of CGI effects, bristling with natural energy and preternatural menace.
A Monster Calls grounds its fantasy in the strong acting skills brought to the human characters. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Rogue One) plays Conor’s mum with a combination of fierce determination and a hint of artistic play. Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell are equally effective in the smaller roles of grandmother and dad. But the film really belongs to Lewis MacDougall, the young actor who plays Conor. He makes you believe both Conor’s pain and his desire to seek solutions, maybe even absolution, from the imposing imaginary creatures.
I’m not sure that A Monster Calls covers any new ground in terms of story, but it does tell this familiar emotional tale with power and a compelling visual sensibility that is most captivating.