If “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” left us wanting more from Felicity Jones and a sentient tree, respectively, we should look no further than “A Monster Calls.” The film is one of the year’s most beautiful stories, and it maneuvers sentiment with finesse. In fact, “A Monster Calls” is the cinematic equivalent of a great heart-to-heart: a sometimes painful, but ultimately satisfying expulsion of emotions.
In “A Monster Calls,” young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is awoken night after night by a monster, a giant humanoid yew tree who is brought to life by Liam Neeson’s signature growl and willingness to trade dignity for a skin-tight motion capture suit. The Monster is a storyteller, whose tales offer solace for Conor during a time when he needs it most — he is bullied mercilessly at school and lives with his terminally ill, single mother (Felicity Jones). The Monster’s tales aren’t infinite though and Conor must learn to face his grim reality on his own.
If there is one thing to take away from “A Monster Calls,” it is that J.A. Bayona is a young director on the rise. His visual stylings are on full display as the film toggles between reality and the monster’s story world: Bayona’s English countryside is grim, a reflection of Conor’s inner turmoil, whereas the Monster’s story world is depicted through vibrant watercolor animation, a necessary escape from Conor’s dour surroundings. These surreal story worlds are not without their own tinge of malice though, which is a duality that Bayona handles deftly, as the film straddles a fine line between despair and hope. This allows “A Monster Calls” to become a serious story about processing grief without veering toward a mercilessly dark tone.
The film hinges upon the believability of Conor’s relationship with his mother, and Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones shine. MacDougall is a relative newcomer, but most wouldn’t be able to tell. As Conor, he bubbles with quiet rage underneath a tender facade, showing Conor’s difficulty to cope with so many things at once. Such a character could have easily come across as whiny, but MacDougall makes him sympathetic. Additionally, MacDougall and Jones have terrific chemistry together, which goes a long way in developing both characters. As Jones’ character’s illness worsens, she tells Conor that everything will be alright, but both know that that won’t be the case. Here, what isn’t said between them is just as important as what is. From their interactions, not exposition, one understands that neither she nor Conor wants to let go of the other, which gives the film its emotional core.
No film is perfect, and while there is little to complain about, “A Monster Calls” is no exception. Sigourney Weaver, who plays Conor’s grandmother, uses a British accent that is spotty at times, but never too distracting. Her character also comes across as cartoonishly forbidding. Yet, this is all in service to her arc, which, while satisfying, could have been more subtle. Additionally, certain scenes in the film felt lacking in emotional payoff. Moments that should have been satisfying don’t realize their full potential, coming across as mere story beats rather than emotional climaxes. Granted, these moments are relatively minor in the context of the whole film — however, one can’t help but want a fist-pumping moment here and there.
The film might show restraint in eliciting emotions during smaller scenes, but that’s because it puts all its cards into the finale, a heartrending span of 30 minutes that are guaranteed to reduce the viewer to an incoherent, feeble puddle of tears. “A Monster Calls” is a bona fide cry-fest, a film in the same league as “Steel Magnolias” and the first 15 minutes of “Up.” The film is tasteful in its execution, however, dishing out just the right amount of sentimentality. What’s more, “A Monster Calls” uses this sentimentality to underscore its message, which is realized when the Monster helps Conor come to terms with aspects of grief that we’ve all felt, but never had the words to articulate. The film earns the sentimentality it reaps, and in doing so, becomes quite profound.
“A Monster Calls” is a true holiday treat. It’s a singularly moving film, a human tale that doesn’t feel like Oscar-bait but is also without the weight of a franchise juggernaut. As J.A. Bayona dives into the “Jurassic World” sequel, one can’t help but feel optimistic for it and the young director’s future.