As a tribute to the power of imagination and an intimate glimpse into a fragile adolescent mind, A Monster Calls is more than your typical fantasy about boy and beast.
It’s a stylish and sophisticated coming-of-age fable about a precocious youngster haunted by nightmares as a coping mechanism for real-world troubles distinguishing reality from fiction.
The story centers on a British boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who deals with bullying in school and the deteriorating health of his cancer-stricken single mother (Felicity Jones) at home. Amid his horrific visions, the youngster retreats to his notebooks and his passion for drawing.
During one especially tough night, a recurring nightmare comes to life when Conor is visited outside his bedroom window by a monster disguised as a tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). He’s intimidating in both appearance and action, promising to tell Conor three stories in exchange for one of his own.
It soon becomes apparent that the monster isn’t there to frighten the boy — although it does plenty of that — but to prompt him to open up about his troubles and face his fears.
As his mother becomes unable to care for him, Conor is taken in by his unsympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). So for Conor, the monster ultimately becomes an unlikely source for everything from catharsis to wisdom to tough love. And Neeson does some stellar work with his distinctive voice.
The visual approach of director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) captures the shape-shifting nature of dreams in a way that feels vivid and convincing. The film is meticulously crafted and technically proficient, featuring seamless visual effects and imaginative depictions of its nightmarish visions.
With his expressive performance, MacDougall (Pan) creates sympathy for the young protagonist and his healthy curiosity, even if the character feels like a standard-issue social outcast on the surface. Older children might identify with his plight, although the material is too dark for smaller kiddos.
The film resonates with sincerity even during its more sentimental moments. While the screenplay by Patrick Ness — adapted from his novel — is deliberately paced and meanders in the middle, the film’s quieter sequences make those with the monster seem more powerful.