A Monster Calls

J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” is based on a YA Novel and depicts a young boy’s relationship with a massive, lumbering monster. Yet, the movie doesn’t play like it sounds and surpasses expectations on multiple levels. Although the novel is familiar to young adults, the story is awfully tough, even wrenching at times and may be too much for young audiences. Despite the nature of the tale, this isn’t anything like the recent Steven Spielberg adaptation of “The BFG.” In fact, it’s far better.

This England-set story depicts Conor (played by Lewis MacDougall), a small boy who suffers daily harassment from school bullies. Conor’s Mum (skillfully played by Felicity Jones) has a terminal illness and his Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) tries to maintain order as her daughter is dying and her grandson is constantly acting aggressively. At 12:07 every night, a Monster (Liam Neeson, in a vocal and motion capture performance), made from a nearby tree, visits Conor and tells him a series of stories. As Conor’s home life and daily abuse in school become unbearable, the Monster challenges Conor to consider why he showed up in the first place.

Based on the novel by Patrick Ness (itself based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd), Bayona’s film inches towards a maudlin approach but always pulls back. While this is an emotionally rich fantasy/drama, its much stronger than you’d expect for a movie with youth appeal. I’m not entirely sure who the film’s audience demographic, except that anyone who loves a great movie should seek this one out.

I was initially resistant to the film’s story-within-a-story approach, which involves fanciful animation that purposely resembles storybook  illustrations. Everything comes together so powerfully in the final act, even the smaller details all connect in a satisfying manner in the end.

Except for a small role in ”Pan,” this is MacDougall’s first major role and he’s phenomenal. This isn’t a cutesy child performance or a kid mimicking adult behavior from an acting coach. MacDougall’s work is raw and always convincing. Weaver’s accent is on and off but she’s excellent and so is Jones, whose moments later in the film hit hard. Neeson gives so much to The Monster and makes the poignant qualities and hidden layers of the character truly heartfelt.

Although the movie makes it clear that the Monster is a product of Conor’s imagination, the sudden appearances of the giant creature don’t throw the movie off track. I was always invested in this story, whether its grounded in reality, immersed in fantasy or a bold combination of both.

Bayona’s prior films were the classy ghost story “The Orphanage” and the stunning, Naomi Watts-starring Thai tsunami drama, “The Impossible.” With each new movie, he demonstrates a visual mastery of his genre and the ability to shape difficult material into a great film. The visual effects in “A Monster Calls” are often amazing (particularly a sequence involving a sinkhole). Yet, Bayon’s greatest achievement here is keeping the human story as immediate as the fantastical elements and balancing a gritty, relatable look at a boy’s hardships with the CGI-heavy interludes. The real and fantasy aspects don’t seem like they’re going to neatly mesh at first but once the two worlds come together, it fuses in a thought-provoking, inspirational manner.

The final scenes overwhelmed me, as the fantasy aspect of the premise goes as far as it can and reveals a layer that is utterly moving. As a meditation on a young man struggling with personal hardships, dealing with grief and overcoming the crippling fear of school bullies, “A Monster Calls” is heartbreaking and enlightening. Its rougher around the edges that most YA Novel adaptations but its exactly that grit and authentic pitch of emotion that makes it so great.

Four Stars

originally published in MAUIWatch