If you’ve got a thing about being seen crying in public, you might want to take a pass on catching A Monster Calls in a theater. But that would be a big mistake. Directed by J.A. Bayona, known for The Orphanage and The Impossible and set to direct the next Jurassic World, this all-out assault on the emotions stems from Patrick Ness’ novel and screenplay about Conor (Lewis MacDougall), an angry, sensitive 12-year-old boy in rural England who’s bullied in school and battered with the terminal illness of his loving single mother (Felicity Jones), all the while navigating the normal challenges of coming of age.
Swirling around Conor, who is a budding illustrator like his artist mother, are his father (Toby Kebell) who ran away to make a new family in America, and his chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) with whom he might have to live eventually. The one bright spot, the guide and healer, turns out to be the monster of the title (voiced by Liam Neeson), a gnarly-limbed old yew tree with glowing eyes who spins for Conor magical allegorical fables on three separate nights—on the strict condition that, four nights in, it will be the boy’s turn to entertain the tree with a story of his own.
The details are wonderfully specific, and the impact is universal. Bayona and company have done something gorgeous and deeply felt with the material—not only a kind of companion piece to The Iron Giant, Pan’s Labyrinth and Coraline but also what Spielberg’s screen version of The BFG tried to be, but wasn’t. The stunning CGI and animation combine brilliantly to plunge us into the emotional tailspin of a complicated kid struggling with anticipatory loss and grief. What’s especially smart, and rare in films, is that the big, showy effects seem to spring organically from Conor’s feverish psyche and not from the playbook of the effects team.
The source material, direction and shifts in tone aren’t always as subtle as you might wish. But neither are heartbreak and grief. Two of the fables told by the giant tree (in Neeson’s sonorous, gravel-edged baritone) are animated in watercolors and set in worlds populated by witches, kings and dragons and filled with terrible curses. They’re incredibly beautiful to watch, their shapes and colors flooding the screen. As with the most resonant, powerful fairy tales, the tales shred any notion of “…and they lived happily ever after.”
As the monster tells Conor, “There is no good or bad. Most people are somewhere in between.” But the movie soars or crashes on the strength of MacDougall’s performance as the imaginative boy ripped apart by the circumstances of his life. Like Tom Holland, whom Bayona discovered for The Impossible and who debuts next summer as Spider-Man, newcomer MacDougall delivers in a major way—with a face that is a constantly shifting map of sadness, rage, obsession and resignation. In his lovely scenes with Jones and, especially, in a standout dialogue-free scene between him and Weaver after an especially violent outburst of the boy’s fear, both actors reach way down and grab us by the deepest, most elemental emotions and memories. It’s the place A Monster Calls lives.