"A Monster Calls" Is Oppressively Sad, Visually Arresting

J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” is equal parts motion picture and grief support group; a frequently eye-popping fantasy drama defined by unrelenting, one-track weepiness. Its intentions are good, and so is the film. But the anvil-heavy story cries out for some wit to counteract the sadness, to the shed some of the emotional weight that ends up enveloping the picture’s first-rate performances and animated sequences. Nevertheless, Bayona, the Spanish director of “The Impossible,” is one of the most gifted visual artists in the business, ensuring that the sorrow induced by his film doesn’t extend to remorse on the part of ticket buyers.

Author Patrick Ness adapts the screenplay from his own novel about an English boy dealing with his mother’s terminal illness. The late British writer Siobhan Dowd birthed the story idea during her own battle with breast cancer.

12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) can hardly cope with the bullies at his school, much less his single mother’s constant, debilitating pain. He does his best to express his grief through his art, drawing late into the night, checking on his mother regularly. Her name is Lizzie (Felicity Jones); she’s a tender, loving mom with a remarkably evil type of illness conspiring against her. Chemotherapy isn’t working, meaning the time has come for inpatient treatment. The boy will have to leave his home for that of his hardhearted grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Her abode is practically a mausoleum; it might as well be a prison cell for a pre-teen.

When the titular tree monster (voice and motion capture by Liam Neeson) comes calling, the film takes on the tricky task of both juggling fantasy and reality (there’s no strict delineation between the two in Ness’ story) and illuminating the importance of storytelling through storytelling. There’s no other word but the overworked “Dickensian” for the anthropomorphic yew tree and his proposal: he’ll visit Conor three times to tell the boy three stories. Then, Conor will be prepared to tell his story back to the tree. His truth.

Neeson delivers a stellar performance with one unfortunate side effect: it adds to the feeling that his character’s stories are significantly more absorbing than anything else in the film. Their twists and turns lie in stark contrast to the movie’s general straightforwardness, helping shepherd Conor to his ultimate realization but otherwise divorced from the larger storyline. One minute we’re mesmerized by a surprisingly dark, visually arresting take on a familiar fairy tale, the next we’re faced with a wooden Toby Kebbell (“Fantastic Four”) as Conor’s estranged dad explicating broken family truisms. (Ironically it’s Kebbell who gets the only funny line of dialogue in the film.)

Still, MacDougall and Jones are remarkable, shouldering an unusually heavy plot that allows almost no levity. To its credit, the film wraps up every last loose end pretty convincingly, where a more ambiguous denouement might have been an easier ask.

If “A Monster Calls” is all weight, no restraint, at least it represents an ideal in computer-generated imagery meshing with human performances and in-camera effects. (A climactic graveyard scene features a breathtaking combination of all three). We never once question the rapport between this tree monster and his tentative 12-year-old friend, and Bayona’s sly use of real-life Liam Neeson in a few photographs is the crowning touch. If the movie at large is so heavy handed it verges on unwieldy, its highs are as every bit as real as its limitations.

Up next for J.A. Bayona: the sequel to “Jurassic World.” A welcome sharp left turn for the filmmaker, but also a very real opportunity to push his enormous visual talents even further. He’s the real deal.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 23, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenwriter: Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content and some scary images)