‘A Monster Calls’
Director: J.A. Bayona
Stars: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones
4 (out of 5) Globes
Go after your dreams. Overcome adversity. Believe in yourself. You are special. These are the messages children’s movies offer young viewers. “A Monster Calls” preaches none of this, but it does add these lessons to the pile: Life is hard. People are complicated. Emotions are messy. Your loved ones will one day die and you can do nothing to stop that. These are not, perhaps, sentiments parents wish to impart to their children, but this isn’t simply “A Christmas Carol” as written by Wednesday Addams. It’s a downer not because it’s cool or goth, but because it understands how the world works perhaps better than it would like.
Our hero really is too young for such grim business anyway. He’s Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a lonely pre-teen residing in a beautifully stark part of England. His mom (Felicity Jones) is slowly succumbing to cancer which, among other unpleasantries, means he’ll have to move in with his fearsome grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). One night, Conor finds himself visited by a monster — a ghoulish, menacing tree beast lacking any of the charms of “Lord of the Rings”’ ents. Voiced by a snarling, menacing Liam Neeson, this creature threatens to devour our young hero — unless he agrees to listen to three stories over three nights, each one a fairy tale that doesn’t peddle the usual fairy tale pablum. Instead they’re tough love yarns meant to impart upon a suffering child that brutal honesty is the only true path to dealing with grief.
This project, based on Patrick Ness’ book, is a perfect fit for director J.A. Bayona, finding the middle ground between his two previous features: the lush horror of “The Orphanage” and the pitilessness of “The Impossible.” The fantasy elements seamlessly intrude upon the real world, while the fairy tale cutaways are something else: animated whirligigs of inky blood trails, shape-shifting characters and searing colors. They tell stories of witches and handsome princes and magical apothecarists — tales that sound and look for all the world like enchanting parables, but minus the reassuring cappers that ultimately make the world seem black-and-white. As the film wears on, the tree colossus’ stories have a way of infecting Conor’s everyday. He suddenly finds himself acting on his apocalyptic emotions. Soon enough he’s destroying rooms, standing up some truly crappy bullies and generally not maintaining a classically English stiff upper lip. It’s an inversion of everything children’s movies are supposed to be — which is assuming the only people who need to learn the world is complicated are children.