Some might be predisposed to dismiss out-of-hand the prospect of seeing another whimsical fantasy in which a magical creature helps a young boy in the real world, that “Pete’s Dragon” remake just happened afterall, but no matter how familiar “A Monster Calls” might seem to be, it deserves an open mind and fresh perspective.
Filmmaker J.A. Bayona is one of the great talents in the business (his previous efforts are the horror picture “The Orphanage” and the tsunami drama “The Impossible”) precisely because of his gift for melding spectacle with emotional content into the fabrics of his movies.
“A Monster Calls” manages that so seamlessly that even the most hardened of hearts will be transformed into a blubbering, quaking mess by the time the lights come up.
The story concerns a lonely young English boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis McDougall), whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer, while his father (Toby Kebbell) has left the family for a new life in Los Angeles.
One evening, Conor is visited by a tree monster (Liam Neeson, doing the motion capture thing), who helps him cope with this enormous impending tragedy through the elaborately stylized re-telling of stories with morals that directly overlap with the child’s reality.
The movie is infused with fantastical flourishes, particularly in the impressionistically animated illustrations of the monster’s stories of ancient princes and apothecaries. The monster itself is chillingly constructed, molded straight out of the rough earth with eyes that glow and that intense Neeson voice that once, in a very different context, warned of “a particular set of skills.”
Its presence is a genuine comfort, though, compared to the funereal nature of Conor’s real life, which is characterized by the helplessness of being unable to prevent his mom’s suffering, the sadness of being bullied at school and misunderstood by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) at home, and the confusion of grappling with a father who seems above it all.
Bayona casts a further pall over it by muting the colors, engulfing the characters in stony silence at some points while also giving McDougall and Jones room to develop a genuine bond that only amplifies the devastation.
The director, working from a script by Patrick Ness (who wrote the book upon which the movie is based), has made an enormous picture that trades in moods and emotions rather than rigid adherence to a plot. It utilizes the trappings of fantasy to evoke the deep and transcendent ways this mom and her child are connected, ways that transcend logic and science and other concepts we can easily understand, and it is ultimately then about nothing less than love itself.