Tragedy can be magical through the eyes of movie children, from primal tears for Old Yeller to wartime fears fantasized in Pan's Labyrinth.
J.A. Bayona's exquisite A Monster Calls blends pathos and sophistication, fairy tales and harsh realities into a small masterpiece. Inspired by Patrick Ness' novel and adaptation, Bayona crafts a treasure to be rediscovered through the years, as time and loved ones pass.
A Monster Calls is about grief but upliftingly so, a child's lesson not only in how to mourn but how to cope at any age. Tears don't come cheaply in Bayona's movie; neither do any morals to the story. They're earned by rich characters, impeccably portrayed, framed by cine-magic. A Monster Calls gripped this cynic on sentiment and wouldn't let go.
"Where do all fairy tales begin? With a boy and a nightmare," rumbles a voice inside the mind of Conor O'Malley, an Irish lad remarkably played by Lewis MacDougall whose Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying. That is Conor's nightmare to be exorcized by a tree monster (voice of Liam Neeson), a figment of the boy's imagination.
Bayona begins with the symbolic nightmare: a church toppled by collapsing earth, Mum slipping toward oblivion, Conor hanging on for his dearest's life. The images will return, more emotionally real and resonant than usual in fantasies about terrified children. There is no last minute rescue for Mum or any of us. A Monster Calls makes that okay.
Conor's waking life has issues feeding his dream. Mum's condition brings his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who'll take him away when fear becomes real. He's preoccupied at school, with artistic talent displayed in notebook doodles. That makes Conor a target for bullies thinking him odd, mocking his mother's illness after Dad (Toby Kebbell) left for another marriage. Ness spins familiar elements in unique directions, always crucially depicted from Conor's perspective. We must be inside this boy's head and heart in his well-being, for Conor's most essential doodle to convince us when it comes alive.
In daylight, the tree sits outside the O'Malley's countryside home, majestic and content. At 12:07 a.m. each evening it uproots, its trunk and limbs morphed into an ember humanoid crashing into Conor's bedroom, taunting his fear. He will return each night to tell Conor three myths reflecting the boy's reality, gradually urging him to scary actions and what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross would call acceptance.
Bayona's master stroke is depicting the monster's legends in animated watercolors, as Conor practices and imagines. A Monster Calls is striking in its reality designed by Eugenio Caballero — who also conjured Pan's Labyrinth — and its digitally drawn realism, especially its redwoodian creature therapist.
In live action roles, Neeson doesn't offer a particularly expressive face. This role allows one to be CGI-crafted around his marvelous voice, a low brogue rolling any consonant, soothing or threatening in a syllable's time. Ness' fairy tale thanatology requires an inner voice not to be doubted. Neeson's is it.
Some viewers may not grow emotionally invested in A Monster Calls. They may be envied for never losing a loved one or expecting to. That's more preposterous than a tree dishing out life and death lessons. This is grownup fantasy through a child's mind eye; tragedy made magical as ever.
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Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.