J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls is a prolific medley of traditional fable and ‘boy and his monster’ tropes. It’s a Grimm fairy tale retelling of E.T, if the extra terrestrial were a nightmare fuel version of The Giving Tree. Bayona doesn’t so much aim to re-invent these beats so much as to meticulously implement them to wind up an emotional haymaker. Evoking Spielberg can be quite the risk, as it can be either highly successful via Stranger Things or reach Super 8 levels of obvious mimicry. On the eve of his Jurassic World sequel, Bayona could use a few positive comparisons to Spielberg. He’s certainly off to a strong start with the casting. For as much as we lament about different ethnic and social groups being represented on film, you can’t say that the giant tree demographic has been ignored. They’re even spanning genres now. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot had comedic timing to spare, but this hardwood thespian is out to prove that trees have dramatic chops as well.
The story centers on Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), an imaginative and artistic young boy forced into a living nightmare. He’s on the verge of losing his beloved mother (Felicity Jones) to terminal cancer that refuses to subside despite a number of treatments. Terrified of both his mother’s passing and the possibility of living with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor goes into his mind to give. There, he conjures up a fantasy of a hulking tree beast (Liam Neeson), who decides to tell Conor three tales in exchange for a recount of the nightmare that won’t subside.
A Monster Calls is a story that needs to very delicately balance its sappy and foreboding elements. If one is out of whack, we won’t believe the other. Fortunately, Bayona is becoming quite acute at just that. His viciously intense disaster film, The Impossible, never forgot that the bonds of family are far more important than seeing people get swept up by water. A Monster Calls never quite enters that level of physical danger, but the emotional trauma being dealt with here is very raw indeed. Both Conor and the audience need a constant outlet of escape, and Bayona provides just that through his visuals. The entire film takes on a distinctly storybook esque look. It almost seems as though every room or landscape could have been drawn with the same pencils that Conor uses in his pictures. There’s absolutely no attempt to make the monster look real. He’s a figment, and his design is exaggerated as such. We’re also given a bit of eye candy in the tales he tells, as they’re depicted through stunning animated sequences stylistically reminiscent of the tale of the Deathly Hallows from the final Harry Potter films.
Since the entire thematic arc of the film rests on the psychosis of a child, an inauthentic actor could easily wreck this whole affair. That pressure makes Lewis MacDougall’s breakout performance all the more special. He brings a potent maturity to Conor, a boy with a very childlike mind who’s had to grow up all too fast. He’s a solid anchor for the whole film, but as he comes to his therapeutic epiphanies through his outings with the monster, MacDougall hits a couple of the most authentically heartbreaking notes I’ve ever seen out of a child actor. Felicity Jones also shines as a woman with too much love to give and all too little time to give it. Watching her decay from a vibrant and positive person into a shell of herself is almost as rough for us as it is for Conor. Liam Neeson is both terrifying and tender under all of that bark. The monster is certainly far from the most fleshed out CGI character in the world, but Neeson’s playful delivery ensures that he’s never generic. The only one who struggles a little is Sigourney Weaver. While she can play cold and strict with the best of them, she’s battles a horrific British accent that is clearly the product of a simple miscast.
Even with the immense talent on both ends of the camera, A Monster Calls is often at the mercy of its screenplay by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the young adult novel on which the film is based. Since we’re revolving things around the monster’s three stories, the plot structure becomes incredibly rigid. We know exactly where we are in the plot simply by counting how many times we’ve seen the creature, and the dynamic between Conor and his new friend becomes a little predictable after a while. Extenuating said predictability are some laughably trite moments of dialogue that read as though they were copied off of a web generator of touching movie phrases. We’re stuck with a great deal of these sigh-inducing moments in the first act before the monster shows up, keeping the film from really gaining momentum for a while. However, all of the elements do eventually start to come together and then coalesce into a devastatingly touching final twenty minutes. It’s not an unpredictable ending by any means, but the earnest execution may be enough to make a even a regular tree cry.
Even with a fair few moments of hokey storytelling, A Monster Calls is still a deeply moving little fable. It’s the kind of world-weary film that kids should be exposed to once and a while, tackling some deeply disturbing themes in a more approachable way. In fact, this could be a highly therapeutic story for any child who’s had the misfortune of losing a parent. Its effectiveness as a parable often overrides its flaws as a film, with Bayona crafting a story with an emotional core that’s as strong as oak. Best of luck with the dinosaurs my friend, you’ve earned some fun.