J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls finds creative ways to deal with familiar themes and it often does so quite effectively. Based on a novel by Patrick Ness (who also did the screenplay), it tells the coming of age tale of Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall). Conor, as we’re told in the opening sequence, is too old to be a kid and too young to be a grown-up.
It’s at this delicate age in England that he must deal with some heart wrenching experiences. His mother (Felicity Jones) is terminally ill. Conor doesn’t particularly get along with his well-meaning grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his father (Toby Kebbell) resides in Los Angeles with his second family. He’s also bullied at school. The boy’s active imagination allows him to conjure up the title character. It arrives in the form of a giant tree come to life (voiced by Liam Neeson), who visits Conor promptly at 12:07. The Monster does not terrorize him, but rather tells him three tales. These are done in animated form. While they begin as fairy tale like yarns, its listener isn’t sure what to make of them as they divert into surprising endings.
We as an audience aren’t sure either and we along with Conor are told that the boy will tell the final fourth tale. A Monster Calls may contain elements you’d find in many fantasy tales, including nifty creature design and impressive special effects. Yet it’s more concerned with themes of grief and how to find ways to cope with it.
A subpar child actor performance runs the risk of spoiling material, but MacDougall shows we needn’t worry about that. He delivers believable and touching work, as do Jones and Weaver in their supporting roles. Much credit is also due to Neeson’s voice over work (look for a cameo from the actor himself that becomes pivotal after the picture’s conclusion).
Bayona and Ness tug at the heartstrings mostly without being cloying and have a splendid visual landscape to go along with it. Is the story anything truly new? Not really, but they find rather inventive ways to tell it and it earns its emotional resonance.
*** (out of four)