Inspired by a dying mother whose story idea blossomed into an award-winning book, A Monster Calls is a serious fable about a young hero who, as the movie tells us, is “too old to be a child, too young to be a man.” One could say something similar about the film itself, an unhappy tale of a boy who feels isolated at home is bullied at school and afraid of the future. We’re meant to see the film from his point of view but the results are decidedly uneven.
Lewis MacDougall plays 12-year-old Conor, whose parents are divorced. His mother (Felicity Jones) is in and out of hospital battling a pernicious disease and can’t give him the attention—or more importantly, the comfort—he needs. She clings to hope but he has trouble sharing her fragile optimism. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is cold and too upset by her daughter’s condition to muster any kindness toward Conor. Then one night a gigantic, gnarly yew tree rustles to life and comes to Conor’s window, insistent on telling him a sequence of three stories after which he demands that the boy provide his own: the truth inside his head, which comes to him as a recurring nightmare.
The tree monster is a magnificent creation, voiced and acted in motion capture form by Liam Neeson. But his stories, though stylishly animated, are inscrutable and only make sense at the very end of the film.
We’ve seen lonely boys like Conor all too often onscreen and suffered through many a parent’s illness. It’s the fantasy component that distinguishes A Monster Calls, but the creature’s significance isn’t crystal clear—to Conor or to us in the audience.
Spanish director J.A. Bayona is a gifted filmmaker, which is apparent to anyone who saw The Orphanage or his English-language debut feature The Impossible. He clearly cares about his characters and not just the visual effects that surround them in this sincere telling of Patrick Ness’ novel, which the author adapted for the screen. (It, in turn, was based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd.)
I wanted to be swept up in the emotions of the piece but I never was. I cry easily at movies, yet this one kept me at a distance, perhaps because it covers such familiar ground. A Mon ster Calls has its heart in the right place but I felt like an outsider looking in rather than someone vicariously experiencing the story of its troubled protagonist.