In the past 12 months, we've seen two memorable movie monsters. The first, the Big Friendly Giant (The BFG), lives up to his name. If you can look past his grotesque features and uncouth fellow fee-fi-fo-fummers, he's a big sweetie. The same can't be said for the eponymous star of A Monster Calls.
No, this is a giant straight out of a child's nightmares, carrying an adult-oriented message. Voiced by Liam Neeson, this CGI monster has come to visit 13-year-old Conor O'Malley not to comfort or provide escapist amusement, but to both challenge him and help him overcome the perceived monster inside himself. He's also come to heal, which is appropriate considering he's birthed from the branches of a sacred yew tree.
Conor – "too old to be a kid [and] too young to be a man" – is struggling to cope with the serious illness of his mother (Felicity Jones). He doesn't get much emotional support from his largely absent father (Toby Kebbell), and he detests his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). So it's not surprising that this emotionally frustrated yet visually creative English lad concocts a fantastical character. Or perhaps it's not so much concoction as mystical intervention.
Director J.A. Bayona has dealt with loss and grief in mother-son relationships before, in The Orphanage and The Impossible. A Monster Calls is not quite as strong as those, but it's close – and just as deep. Particularly memorable is the way Bayona and writer Patrick Ness (who based the screenplay on his 2011 novel) balance fantasy and reality while blending traditional fables with modern truths. The merger of animation styles is even more impressive, with CGI working alongside traditional 2-D watercolors, the latter being used to bring alive two of the three fables that the giant imparts to Conor. (Those fables tackle topics ranging from adhering to one's principles to the ambiguity of good and evil.)
The film's weaknesses lie in its performances, pacing and the sense that Bayona, who is Spanish, can't quite capture the story's peculiarly English sensibility. Still, Bayona shows immense talent, especially in his use of imagery and art direction, compared to Weaver, who is miscast. Lacking the requisite English air and vocal pattern (though her basic sounds are OK), she is also physically wrong for the grandmotherly part. (Replace her with Judi Dench or Fionnula Flanagan, and you'd really have a film!) Kebbell is also unimpressive, but, thankfully, Neeson, Jones and Lewis MacDougall (Conor) are asked to do most of the heavy lifting, and they are all up to the task, especially Jones, who is becoming an acting powerhouse. (And watch carefully for a brief appearance by Geraldine Chaplin.)
The film has some scary moments befitting its mature themes. One would expect no less from the director of The Orphanage. But if Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was a fairy tale strictly for adults, A Monster Calls is one that both adults and brave children over, say, 10 years of age should see, despite the PG-13 rating.
Most movie creatures are better left alone. But this is one monster call you should answer.
3 and a half out of 5 stars