A Monster Calls (2016)

Focus Features
First of all, if anyone who tells you A Monster Calls is a movie for kids, do not believe them. Its PG-13 rating and cool monster effects/animation notwithstanding, A Monster Calls is pretty intense viewing, and I wouldn’t want to take a kid to it for fear of it really upsetting them. I mean, I’m in my late 40s and it kind of upset me. But that’s not to say A Monster Calls isn’t a really, REALLY good movie.

Directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Patrick Ness, based on his own novel, A Monster Calls stars Lewis MacDougall as Conor, a pre-teen whose single mother, played by Felicity Jones, is dying from a terminal illness. An outcast at school and facing the impending loss of his mother, Conor dives into his vivid imagination to help him cope with his raging emotions. He invents a tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, who visits him nightly, to channel his anger, sadness and confusion. A nightmare come to life in Conor’s mind, the tree monster enables Conor to confront the brutality of his reality and face down his own personal demons.

Despite the heavy subject matter, this film looks absolutely amazing. The CGI and animation, of both the monster and Conor’s various other nightmare/dream elements come to life, are spectacular. Their seamless integration into the story make for a stunningly powerful narrative experience, which makes us truly feel what Conor is going through, relating his emotions in a visceral way. And it is that visceral emotional experience that makes A Monster Calls so powerful.

MacDougall is impressive in only his second big-screen role (he was in 2015’s Pan), as he plays Conor with an intensity way beyond his years. Neeson voices the monster with verve and Sigourney Weaver is complex and heartfelt as Conor’s grandmother. Their scenes together are quite moving, both should get credit for bringing a genuine humanity to a movie that could so easily be dominated by the fantasy and special effects elements.

And that’s perhaps what recommends A Monster Calls the most. The blending of fantasy and reality are so effectively rendered to make Conor’s story relatable yet gutting. The effects here don’t take you out of the story, they make you even more invested.

Overall, A Monster Calls will tug at your heartstrings and isn’t afraid to go dark, but the bright side here is the beauty of its filmmaking, the strength of its performances and the depth of its feeling.