PLOT A boy with a dying mother encounters an ancient monster.
CAST Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Lewis MacDougall
BOTTOM LINE Visually sumptuous, though children may be overwhelmed by the heavy themes of loss and grief.
“A Monster Calls,” J.A. Bayona’s beautiful but wrenching movie about a boy whose mother is dying, may not be suitable for all young viewers. You are hereby warned: Though well-made on every level, with gorgeous visuals and raw, heightened performances, “A Monster Calls” is more emotionally intense than the average children’s movie — by a factor of maybe two or three hundred.
Based on a book begun by British children’s author Siobhan Dowd, but completed by Patrick Ness after she died of breast cancer in 2007, “A Monster Calls” opens with a nightmare. In it, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (a very moving Lewis MacDougall) races through a crumbling graveyard to save his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), from falling into a black chasm. The symbolism seems plain enough when we meet the real Lizzie, gaunt and weakened from a terminal illness, but nothing in this movie is as simple as it first appears.
The monster of the title is an old tree that uproots itself one night to stomp over to Conor’s house. Thundering with the voice of Liam Neeson (who also provided the motion-capture performance), the monster insists on telling Conor three fictional stories in exchange for a true one. The monster’s tales are troubling — villains triumph, heroes perish, endings don’t satisfy — and they’re illustrated in an evocative, watercolor style of animation with angry streaks and splatters. Conor is outraged by these anti-fables, but the monster only growls, “Many things that are true feel like a cheat.”
We sense this monster is partly a therapist — “Tell me your truth!” he bellows at the cowering boy — and partly a manifestation of unprocessed grief, guilt and rage. The most harrowing scene comes when Conor, in a kind of fugue state, destroys the house of his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). It’s the moment we realize Conor’s external problems — bullies at school, a faraway father (Toby Kebbell) — are taking root deep inside him.
“A Monster Calls” is an uncommonly penetrating and unsparing film about coping with hard realities. Bayona, a protégé of Guillermo del Toro (they share a dark sensibility), strikes such a sorrowful and wrenchingly cathartic tone, however, that the film becomes overwhelming, even draining. It might be best seen during the day, so that exiting the theater will at least guarantee another glimpse of sunshine.