I rarely indulge in New Year’s resolutions. There are always typical thoughts wafting around my head: Eat better. Get in shape. Start working on that thing I’ve been putting off because of whatever. This year I did make one small resolution to myself: See better movies. I’m going to seek out more unique movies and see a lot fewer big-budget blockbusters. And it doesn’t get much more unique than the dark, dramatic and fantastic fantasy of “A Monster Calls.” It’s a movie that takes a familiar subject matter and injects it with a fresh perspective. A modern-day tale of love, loss and the power of imagination.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is an angry young man with good reason. His mother (Felicity Jones) is fighting cancer and trying to be strong for her son. Unfortunately her treatment forces her to remain hospitalized, meaning Conor has to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). At school Conor is introverted and isolated, bullied by a group of boys who seem happy to prey on an easy target.
Without release for many issues which plague him, Conor begins to embark on something between a magical journey and a psychotic episode. One night in the aftermath of a nightmare, he is visited by The Monster (Liam Neeson) who has taken the form of an aged tree overlooking his home. This hulking monstrosity is something out of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”—the original old-school German ones where the characters were equal-parts wondrous and frightening, not the sugar-coated crap Disney’s been hocking since Walt figured out how to rotoscope.
The monster tells Conor he has three stories to share. After he completes his three tales, it will then be Conor’s turn to share the story behind his recurring nightmare. The movie shifts back and forth between grim reality and fantasy as The Monster roots his way into Conor’s life. The stories he tells don’t seem to make much sense at first, but each brings Conor a little bit closer to a conclusion he doesn’t want to accept.
“A Monster Calls” is a special film—a movie managing to walk a perilous tightrope, working both as a heartfelt drama and piece of imaginative fantasy. Director J.A. Bayona does an exceptional job creating a world that feels both menacing and magical. While it is a movie about a kid, it is certainly not a “kids’ movie.” Unless parents want their kids to curl up in the fetal position afterward and begin to question their own mortality.
The film has a beautiful aesthetic. The monster is an inspired creation that legitimately feels otherworldly and is perfectly voiced by Liam Neeson, who has found his way back into movies of substance after taking a five-year tour of low-grade action films. Lewis MacDougall does a great job of playing the beleaguered, broken young man, who is dealing with way more than any 12-year-old should. There are a lot of rough edges to the character—and for someone so young, he brings a crazy amount of believability to the role. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task.
There are a number of movies about children creating fantasies to help them deal with difficulties of life, but few are as effective or as disarming. The truth Conor seeks in order to finish his story is an emotional donkey punch. There’s a moment toward the end where audiences might think Conor’s journey was about accepting reality and abandoning fantasy as a work of cerebral fiction. But Bayona is a gifted director and leaves viewers with the notion the world may not be so simple, and Conor’s monster may have a more profound connection.
“A Monster Calls” is a movie well worth seeking out. Unconventional in its presentation, it has aesthetic architecture and is filled with great performances. It also feels like a movie that understands the value of special effects. In a time where most computer-generated imagery feels incredibly fake, there’s a sense of depth and dimensionality to Conor’s monster. The film could easily be used as an educational example of how to integrate a computer-generated character naturally into a movie.
There’s a lot to love about this film. I encourage readers to see it before it leaves theaters, which I’m guessing is soon since I watched the thing in an empty theater at Carmike. Movies this good deserve to be seen.