In A Monster Calls, J.A. Bayona’s (The Orphanage) wondrous and heartfelt new giant monster fantasy, an ancient old yew tree pulls itself out of the ground and stomps, with big, thudding booms, to the window of Conor (Lewis McDouggall), a young boy who looks a little like Ted Raimi with sadder eyes. The monster, who speaks in the gravely warm baritone of Liam Neeson, doesn’t intend on eating Conor. Instead he wants to tell him stories — three to be exact, at the same time each night, with Conor providing the fourth.
Each of the stories come alive in beautifully rendered impressionistic watercolors, and they are beguiling fairy tale stories given twists deepen and add complexity to their moral lessons. Conor doesn’t exactly want stories per se — he wants healing. Specifically, he wants his beloved mother (Felicity Jones), who’s dying of cancer, healed, but he’s still held, reluctantly, but also with wide-eyed wonder, under the tree’s thrall. He’s combative and angry, but also enthralled. And its hard for the audience not to be, either.
If you were asked to pick a movie, one with that wistful mix of poignancy and charm, that you could describe as a live action Studio Ghibli film, that you couldn’t have a stronger contender than A Monster Calls. Bayona’s film is that rare thing: a genuine piece of magic. It’s feeling and deep, with a current of bittersweet melancholy, that Bayona directs with a gorgeous earthy poetry. The movie is a tear-jerker, but it’s an honest and sincere one — it plucks your heartstrings, but does so with a delicate grace.
A Monster Calls is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, and its perceptive about the ways we cope with death, loss and the confusion that comes from that — especially when you are a child. The tree monster is an obvious metaphor, but Bayona and Ness never let that obviousness turn heavy-handed, and the movie works a mesmerizing spell. This is a child’s reverie of death, yes, but it’s also a movie about stories — about what they mean to us, and why we tell them, and how they help us get through life.
Bayona and Ness are helped immensely by their cast. Jones is all loving warmth as Conor’s mum, but Bayona resists the urge to make her too beatific; he does similar fine work with Toby Kebbell as Conor’s father, who has moved to California, but is not treated as a one-dimensional villain, but a realistically loving father who knows that his situation brings him elsewhere. The real find is MacDougall. The young actor doesn’t play precocious or cloying, but essays Conor with a believable vulnerable intensity. Conor, as a character, isn’t cute — he’s hurting, and McDougall never hits a wrong note in portraying his confusion, anger and fear.
As a film, A Monster Calls manages to be both enchanting and heart-breaking. It’s the rare modern fantasy that tickles the eye with majestic images, such as that giant wooden tree monster, but also packs a deep core of truth while delivering an emotional wallop. A Monster Calls is a hauntingly beautiful film, and a new addition to the realm of children’s classics.