It is an awe-inspiring moment in this film when the giant, gnarled tree on the hill outside 12-year-old Conor O’Malley’s window comes to life and starts lumbering towards the boy’s bedroom window.
The atmosphere is entirely crackling, thundering sounds and gothic visual menace as the monster inches ever closer. When it finally arrives, the monster peers straight into to the open window and unleashes a furious torrent of deafening noise. Surprisingly, young Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is not scared at all. Rather, he’s angry. Angry and confused.
Conor’s mother (Felicity Jones) has a terminal illness, and he is having trouble accepting that. So rather than be frightened by the monster, Conor screams right back at it. The monster retaliates (in the booming voice of none other than Liam freaking Neeson) by … threatening to tell the boy three stories.
Based on an award-winning children’s book by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls is a ponderous fable that elucidates how a child deals with grief through imagination. Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) revels in bringing three different fantasy-worlds-within-a-fantasy-world to drive home the moral of his tale.
The film’s present-day English setting has a classic storybook feel to it, and it’s admirable that Bayona (or more so animator Adrian Garcia) tells the first two of the monster’s stories using ultra-stylized computer animation (narrated by Neeson of course). Despite these strengths, A Monster Calls grows more tiresome as it goes on, not just because of the movie’s telegraphed structure and all-too-prominent message but also because the stories themselves are not that special.
I’ll give the movie credit for tackling a difficult subject. Imagination is both a powerful weapon in the mind of a child and a healthy way to deal with grief that simply can’t be processed or explained at that age. But while the destination reached by the end of A Monster Calls is probably a good place for any child to be, it’s not a very rewarding journey getting there, and the film probably could have ended after the first 30 or so minutes.
Eric’s Test-O-Time Meter: Stream Free
This review is part of Eric Melin’s “LM Screen” column that appears in the spring 2016 edition of Lawrence Magazine.