J.A. Bayona nailed the manipulative power of filmmaking with his brilliant debut, the elegant and creepy 2007 horror film “The Orphanage.” He shifted modes, with far less satisfying results, in 2012’s “The Impossible,” a mawkish portrait of white survivors in the Indonesian tsunami.
For his third feature—and the last before he upgrades to the blockbuster arena to tackle the sequel to “Jurassic World”—Bayona finds a satisfying balance between his first two efforts, juggling the elements of a gothic fairy tale with the more straightforward beats of a sentimental cancer drama. “A Monster Calls,” Bayona’s impressive adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel, finds a 12-year-old British child coping with his mother’s imminent death by envisioning a fantastical creature that guides him through his grief. It’s a touching scenario, and one so well-acted and laced with superb special effects that even its more obvious beats cut deep.
Ness, who faithfully adapted the young adult novel for the screenplay, shrouds the story’s more imaginative bits in a welcome degree of ambiguity. It’s never quite clear if the somber Conor (Lewis MacDougall) actually sees a colossal living version of the yew tree outside his house at night, or if the menacing creature (voiced in a low, distorted rumble by Liam Neeson) merely surfaces in the boy’s dreams.
Either way, it’s a sight to behold, a ginormous mass of spindly roots and branches that form limbs as the creature peers down at Conor through blood-red eyes. Compared to the cartoonish effects of Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” earlier this year, this monster is downright menacing, a hulking terror that suggests what might happen if Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy” took steroids and wandered into “Pan’s Labyrinth.” However, Conor’s conundrum puts “A Monster Calls” in closer kinship with Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” another moving look at confronting death through fantasy.
But even Conor resists that temptation at first, shrugging off the monster’s insistence that it will tell Conor three stories from outside his bedroom window while his mother (Felicity Jones) struggles to hide her terminal illness from her son. Nevertheless the stories arrive, in a series of lovely animations that blend watercolor and stop-motion effects to heighten the film’s otherworldly quality. At first, Conor doesn’t know what to make of the monster’s storybook tales, including the vivid account of a kingdom torn apart by a nefarious witch, because the source of justice is so unclear. With time, he realizes that’s the point: The desire for a clean justification is the wrong attitude when confronting life’s hardships. “People don’t like what they don’t understand,” the monster tells Conor, nailing the reason for his own frustration.
Conor’s experiences with the monster are a hard contrast with the cold reality he faces at school, where a stern bully (James Melville) routinely beats up the quiet boy in the schoolyard. Things aren’t much better at home, where Conor must attempt to get along with his humorless grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, in an oddly stilted turn marred by a fake accent). His America-based father (Toby Kebbell), who separated from his mother long ago, pops in for a visit to help console Conor but only serves to exacerbate his frustrations. Despite the flashier sequences, it’s all fairly routine coming-of-age stuff, carried along by newcomer MacDougal’s tender delivery that grounds the story in an authentic emotional arc. Described by the monster as “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man,” Conor’s performance owes much to the actor’s ability to avoid shrillness when the story calls on him to lash out at his elders.
At times, “A Monster Calls” has a rushed quality, as it goes through the motions of Conor receiving more dour updates about his mother and whining about it to the adults in his life. However, Bayona excels at letting the spectacular moments rules the show. As Conor grows closer to confronting his repressed emotions, “A Monster Calls” develops an eerie layer around the possibility that the boy could face a psychological meltdown. Shifting into full allegory in the finale, “A Monster Calls” features a supernatural showdown that takes its cues from Neeson’s booming voice. Bayona balances these dramatic moments with understatement, and the result is an especially strong, wordless finale.
“A Monster Calls” marks the third 2016 film to feature a child’s relationship with invented creatures, joining “The BFG” and David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” reboot in a trifecta of stories about the interplay of dramatic experiences and imagination. Considering how easily the material could turn maudlin, it’s especially notable that Bayona avoids overstatement. The monster may or may not be a metaphor; either way, it leaves a strong impression. One can only hope that Bayona, about to head into the universe of massive Hollywood tentpoles, will keep it up.
“A Monster Calls” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens theatrically on December 23.