Filmmaker J.A. Bayona goes three for three with A Monster Calls, a movie more steeped in fantasy and fairy tale than his previous one, but still very much connected to raw and authentic human emotions. Few filmmakers have mastered the dark fantasy genre as well as Guillermo del Toro did with Pan’s Labyrinth, so to have another movie come along and offer something just as moving and memorable as the pinnacle of said genre is both astonishing and quite wonderful.
For his third feature film, director Juan Antonio Bayona once again explores the relationship between a mother and her child, this time in the form of the Patrick Ness novel based on the late Siobhan Dowd’s final work. Those hoping for something more in line with the genre fare Bayona delivered in his first film, The Orphanage,over the natural disaster of his second film, The Impossible, should be well-satisfied by a film that blends fantasy with reality in a striking and innovative way.
Young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) has been suffering from a recurring nightmare about his ailing mother (Felicity Jones), while also being mercilessly bullied in school. One night at 12:07 AM, the giant tree on the cemetery hill in the distance comes to life and offers to tell Conor three stories in exchange for him sharing his nightmare. With the cancer in Conor’s mother intensifying, he’s forced to live with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), so Conor hopes that this “tree-monster” (voiced by Liam Neeson) can help him with all these problems.
As much as this might sound or even look a little like The BFG, Roald Dahl’s children novel recently bought to the screen (rather disappointingly) by Steven Spielberg, A Monster Calls isn’t a kids movie as much as it is a coming-of-age drama enhanced by what the dark fantasy elements bring to the table.
Each of the three stories the tree tells Conor are visualized using distinct styles of animated illustrations that look almost like moving watercolors. (There’s a reason for the very specific look of each that will be revealed later.) The stories all relate to part of what Conor has been experiencing, with the caveat that once he’s heard the three stories, he needs to tell his own story afterwards. The fantasy elements in the film are simply superb, and the Neeson-voiced tree monster perfectly integrated into the world around Conor.
While movies centered on kids don’t always work, A Monster Calls effectively relies almost solely on the performance by Lewis MacDougall, a refreshing young discovery who carries the entire film while keeping you emotionally invested. He is helped immensely by the voice of Liam Neeson, who is a commanding presence even without seeing the enormous CG tree creature that he’s voicing.
Despite having only a few scenes opposite MacDougall, Felicity Jones gives another powerful performance that’s as impressive as her Oscar-nominated turn in The Theory of Everything, and when Toby Kebbell shows up as Conor’s dad to try to help with the boy’s growing anger issues, it brings another layer of needed empathy to the mix. The movie’s only major issue is Sigourney Weaver’s fluctuating accent, because you’re never sure whether she’s trying to be British or American.
The culmination of Conor’s story is just a fantastic set piece that comes with a real emotional wallop—brought together in a way that’s likely to leave you quite shaken and moved. Knowing the original novel came from a place of loss—Ness wrote it after his friend Siobhan Dowd died of cancer before being able to write it herself—adds another emotional layer to an ending on par with last year’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with Bayona’s regular composer Fernando Velazquez creating a musical bed that makes it even more devastating.
Visually compelling and emotionally draining, this dark fable is an unforgettable experience, and Bayona’s talents as a filmmaker are now undeniable.
A Monster Calls premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and will be released in select cities on December 23 and then nationwide on January 6, 2017.