In a year full of fantastic creatures and imaginary friends — in which orphan Pete adopted his own dragon and lonely Sophie found a Big Friendly Giant to keep her company — 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, the young hero of “A Monster Calls,” may as well have drawn the short end of the stick: His CG buddy is a tree.
While his mother (Felicity Jones) battles cancer and his dad (Toby Kebbell) gets ready to move across the ocean to America, the poor British kid (a lonely little-boy-lost played by relative newcomer Lewis MacDougall) is beset by problems too big to confront alone. His torment awakens the ancient yew tree (magnificently voiced by Liam Neeson) just beyond his bedroom window. When the tree unexpectedly uproots itself and stomps on enormous gnarled-root legs over to Conor’s house, it’s meant to be quite an intimidating encounter, but the boy isn’t scared — and neither are we — in a splendidly rendered, yet oddly ill-conceived terminal-illness melodrama that feels much too dark and serious for audiences Conor’s age, and an even more curious fit for grown-ups.
That leaves one giant demographic in between: the all-powerful “fanboy” contingent — those adult kids whose ability to identify so easily with genre studies of adolescent emotional turmoil just might save this movie, if only Focus could quickly figure out how to fix its marketing campaign. More likely, “A Monster Calls” will join a long list of tragic box-office disappointments (of which “The Iron Giant” is probably the closest analogy) that are embraced as cult classics by such fantasy connoisseurs years down the road.
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Working in its favor, “A Monster Calls” is an incredibly small and intimate gothic fable — albeit one that relies on elaborately commissioned animation and visual-effects components — from J.A. Bayona, the ultra-talented director of unnerving Spanish chiller “The Orphanage” and visceral tsunami-survival epic “The Impossible.” The latter should have launched Bayona to the top of the A-list, but never quite found its audience in the U.S., and so he regroups, as like-minded Mexican helmer Guillermo del Toro did on “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” to a more personal project (en route to directing the next “Jurassic Park” sequel).
By comparison with his more overtly Spielbergian early work, “A Monster Calls” feels like a dainty little dollhouse of a movie, constructed in an old-fashioned expressionistic style that calls attention to its own artifice: Meticulously appointed rooms actually look like stage sets, clothing feels like costumes, and the actors’ reactions are so minutely telegraphed that we read them as performances rather than real emotions, all of which is accentuated by an orchestral score so lovely (from Fernando Velázquez), we find ourselves listening to the music, instead of simply letting it enrich the rest.
In Bayona’s defense, many of those choices are dictated by Patrick Ness’ overly precious screenplay, which the author has woodenly adapted from his own novel, both of which rely on a needlessly elaborate scenario in order to make an incredibly simple (and, let’s admit it, painfully obvious) point — namely, that it’s OK to grieve. Considering how seldom anyone writes tree-hugging fantasy stories these days, it’s hard not to compare this one to Shel Silverstein’s far superior “The Giving Tree,” which embraces elegant simplicity in place of this film’s more ambiguous dynamic between a boy and his arboreal best friend — his only friend, actually.
Conor’s only other companion is his grandmother (a curiously cast Sigourney Weaver, who’s terrific, if not entirely convincing as a severe old British woman). When the tree first chooses to visit Conor, our protagonist — “a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” — is plagued by the fear that he will lose his mother, whom he sees plunging to her death in a recurring nightmare set in the old graveyard at the top of the hill. For decades, if not centuries, the tree has stood sentry over this cemetery, but now, responding to the sheer force of Conor’s anxieties, it once again decides to get involved in the affairs of men.
How wise we humans would be if we could somehow find a way to harvest all that trees have witnessed in their eons on earth. Between Neeson’s deep-bass voiceover and Oriol Tarragó’s elaborate, ever-splintering sound design, this mostly-animatronic “monster” may seem vaguely intimidating at times, but is ultimately a benevolent creature with a friendly enough pact to offer: The tree, who always visits at precisely the same time (12:07, his own personal witching hour), will tell Conor three stories, and once it has finished, the boy must offer one of his own — or else … well, the movie never quite establishes what the stakes might be if Conor doesn’t comply, thereby sapping any notion of suspense. The all-important priority is that Conor must speak his own truth — which is to say, he must confront the nightmare that has been troubling him all this time.
For the tree’s first two tales, Bayona has enlisted Headless animation director Adrián García, who supplies a pair of sublime visual sequences to accompany a pair of stories which wouldn’t be all that interesting otherwise. The first toys with fairy-tale clichés, attempting to dismantle the Prince Charming myth, while the second is a tragic account of hypocrisy in the face of medieval faith — and though neither Conor nor audiences can immediately make sense of why we’re hearing this, García’s work elevates these scenes into exquisite artistic interludes, in which what appears to be some combination of wet ink and watercolor comes to life before our eyes.
By the third story, which begins promisingly enough — “There was once an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen” — Bayona has either ran out of budget or time, and so we remain stuck in Conor’s fraying reality, which, of course, is what most needs mending. The boy is angry, beset by bullies, overwhelmed by grief, and desperately in need of an outlet. And yet, only he is blind to his situation. His mother, father, grandmother, and the entire audience recognize his pain and anticipate the film’s big, tear-jerky reveal from miles away. We’ve heard the same lesson countless times before in other movies, and though it’s certainly impressive to see Conor’s anxieties manifest themselves in such a stunning Ent-like being, as monsters go, Bayona’s creation is all bark and no bite.