Film Review: A Monster Calls

An audacious mix of genres, 'A Monster Calls' brings a dark, fantastical twist to a tale of childhood grief.
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After tackling the horror (The Orphanage) and disaster (The Impossible) genres, director J.A. Bayona tries his hand at fantasy with the unique, heartrending and slightly oddball A Monster Calls. Bring your Kleenex. You’ll need it.

This happy holiday release stars newcomer Lewis MacDougall as Conor, a young boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. (I wasn’t lying about the “You’re going to cry” thing.) The impending death of dear mama isn’t Conor’s only problem—his father (Toby Kebbell), who lives across an ocean with his new family, can’t (or doesn’t want to) take Conor in after the inevitable death of his mother, which means Conor will be left in the care of a straitlaced grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, emotionally affecting as a woman about to lose her daughter but struggling a bit with her British accent) with whom he has absolutely bupkis in common.

And then there’s the bullying, and the fact that all of Conor’s teachers irritatingly handle him with kid gloves. To help Conor through these myriad issues comes a licensed child psychologist…no, wait…try again…a gigantic tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, who visits Conor and tells him stories, depicted onscreen via stunning watercolor-style illustration.

Something of a modern-day fairytale, A Monster Calls hews to the template laid out by its Grimm predecessors in one very notable way: It’s dark. Though ultimately a tale of hope and healing,A Monster Calls pulls no punches in its depiction of the grief, anger, despair and guilt felt by its young protagonist. This is a film that puts its audience, like its main character, through the wringer. It’s a bold decision from Bayona not to sugarcoat anything, though one rather suspects it might make it difficult for A Monster Calls to find its audience.

Though ostensibly aimed at children, or at least teens (check that PG-13 rating), it’s more heavy on darkness and light on fun than other movies in its conceptual wheelhouse, like the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Henry Selick’s Coraline or Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Those movies got dark, yes, but they had some chuckles in between the tears and shivers, whereas A Monster Calls really doesn’t. That’s not a criticism—Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness, adapting his own book, have a vision, and they stick to it with confidence and consistency. One doesn’t really expect a movie about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer to be “fun,” anyway. But it does mean A Monster Calls doesn’t exactly have “mainstream crowd-pleaser” written all over it.

Like many a film that exists in the grey zone between easily defined genres—Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak comes to mind—A Monster Calls may find itself slipping through the cracks, too childlike for adults, too adult for children. If that were to happen, it would be a shame. Bayona has crafted a unique, poignant, self-assured and visually impressive film that hopefully heralds a strong career for star MacDougall, who turns in a heartrending performance. And, another plus: It’ll really clear out your sinuses.

Click here for cast and crew information.