It’s more likely an odd coincidence than a sign of the zeitgeist that 2016 has seen several movies about the bond between children and fantastical creatures. And it’s indisputable that J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls is the best of them, surpassing Pete's Dragon and taking giant steps over The BFG and The 9th Life of Louis Drax to deliver a moving meditation on grief, coming of age and the power of storytelling. It also boasts a hell of an impressive title character.
Young audiences might initially find this colossal being familiar—he’s a bit like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot with intonations reminiscent of Transformers’ Optimus Prime—but he soon reveals a very specific personality, even as his purpose only slowly becomes clear. The Monster, perfectly voiced and performed for motion capture by Liam Neeson (who also makes another, very subtle but telling appearance in the film), is the ambulatory incarnation of a large yew tree overlooking a cemetery visible from the bedroom window of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a young British lad whose mother (Felicity Jones) has taken sick. Conor’s anxiety about his mother’s condition finds expression in frightening dreams, one of which, seen early on, establishes the movie’s mix of intense emotion and eye-filling, flawless visual effects.
The latter include The Monster, who announces to Conor that he’s going to tell the boy three stories—which don’t necessarily come to the expected, tidy endings. They express the film’s theme that real life is messier than fairy tales, though the Monster’s fables are brought to life on screen via gorgeous, painterly animation rendered by Adrián Garcia. Throughout, in fact, the movie is a visual and aural feast, thanks to rich cinematography by Oscar Faura, production design by Pan's Labyrinth Academy Award winner Eugenio Caballero and music by Fernando Velázquez, and the efforts of multiple digital effects teams who bring its featured creature to vivid, tactile life.
Patrick Ness’ script, adapted from his novel, gives Conor plenty else to deal with beyond his mother’s illness and the Monster’s ministrations—bullies at school, his frosty grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who arrives to take charge of the house, and his father (Toby Kebbell), who wants to take him away to America. Yet the drama is gripping and moving rather than oppressive, with Bayona seamlessly meshing dark fantasy and real-world trauma as he did in his directorial debut The Orphanage. After discovering future Spider-Man Tom Holland for his gripping tsunami drama The Impossible, the director strikes young-actor gold again with the sensitive, expressive MacDougall, who marshals a wide range of feelings as Conor learns to deal with the unfortunate hand life has dealt him. Bayona backs him up with a first-rate adult ensemble: Jones, in effective counterpoint to her Rogue One heroine, is achingly sympathetic as the ailing Mum, Weaver does imperious authority with a human center to a T as Grandma, and Kebbell, who last made a mark in the fantasy genre as a motion-capture character himself (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ memorable Koba) is very human as the Dad who just wants to do right by his son.
Bayona proves to be just the right filmmaker for a story that infuses family-fantasy tropes with weighty conflicts and complications, and doesn’t take the easy way out in addressing or resolving them. He next ventures into the fraught territory of franchise filmmaking with the Jurassic World sequel, and A Monster Calls offers further evidence that it couldn’t be in better hands.