Hollywood monsters tend to take two forms: Exotic creatures born in a lab or outer space or a toxic accident, or damaged human beings wrestling with inner devils.
The title character of “A Monster Calls” seems initially to be in the first group: He’s an uprooted, walking yew tree 60 feet tall whose divided trunk turns into legs and whose branches become clutching arms. But as we watch his interaction with 12-year-old Conor, whose mother is slowly succumbing to a fatal illness, we see that the “monster” may have emerged from a child burning with rage and sadness.
This isn’t one of those demon-seed horror flicks about a possessed boy with supernatural powers or a golem wreaking havoc under his command. The monster speaks only to Conor, can be seen only by him and acts only in his imagination.
The screenplay, written by Patrick Ness from his young adult novel, thus finds a way to help people who have experienced deep grief process their conflicting emotions. (The credits say the book came “from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.”) You can empathize with this story whether you’ve lost a family member or not. But if you have, it’s especially poignant.
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We meet Conor and his mum (remarkable Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones) in the last months of her treatment for some undefined disease. Her strict mother (Sigourney Weaver, awkwardly attempting a British accent) has come to ease her passing and take care of Conor in lieu of his absent dad.
The boy, who has no apparent friends and suffers physical bullying in silence at his school, has no idea how to sort out his feelings and no idea who might listen if he shared them. One night, the towering tree on the horizon marches up to his bedroom window. This apparition (voiced effectively by Liam Neeson) promises to tell Conor three stories that will help, if the boy can make sense of them; after that, Conor will be expected to reveal his deepest nightmare.
The filmmakers choose a yew because that species has healing properties, and Conor desperately wants to be healed. But as he listens to the stories, which unfold in striking animation, they seem self-contradictory and frustrating. The monster appears to be warning him, empowering him and forcing him to face harsh truths all at once.
J.A. Bayona has directed just three features, all of them involving mothers who are suffering physically or mentally and children who are jeopardized by circumstances beyond their control and forced to confront death.
His masterpiece, “The Orphanage” (2007), follows a family that moves into an abandoned orphanage in Spain, where their son communicates with the spirit of a child. “The Impossible” (2012) takes place in Thailand, as kids struggle to survive after a tsunami destroys much of the coast. “A Monster Calls” is set in England with an international cast. (Neeson is Irish, MacDougall Scottish, Jones English, Weaver American.)
Yet wherever he places his narratives, Bayona understands the forces that bind families together and the ones that tear individuals apart. His real domain is childhood itself, and few storytellers summon its fears and fury so faithfully.
‘A Monster Calls’
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Fellcity Jones, Sigourney Weaver.
Director: J.A. Bayona.
Length: 108 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (thematic content and some scary images).