In an environment in which Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” failed to find an audience, one can only imagine what will be the fate of “A Monster Calls,” J. A. Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel. Visually imaginative but lacking in narrative magic, the tale of an emotionally troubled young boy and the creature that comes to aid him through his difficulties is a beautifully wrought but curiously sterile affair that probably won’t appeal overmuch to either children or their parents.
Twelve-year old British lad Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is, like so many young boys portrayed in movies nowadays, an aspiring artist, drawing fantastical figures in his treasured notebook. But his home life is in terrible shape. His father (Toby Kebbell) has abandoned the family and gone to America, where he now has a new life, and his mother Lizzy (Felicity Jones) is suffering from cancer, which a series of treatments fail to arrest. His father comes to visit and suggests that Conor go to join him (and his new family) across the Atlantic, but nothing comes of it; and when Lizzy is taken off to the hospital, the boy will have to go live with his stern, severe grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Conor is equally miserable at school, where a bully (James Melville) regularly torments him.
No wonder Conor is having terrifying nightmares about the ground opening up in the craggy field nearby, where a church stands along with its cemetery, and swallowing Lizzy. Help of an enigmatic sort arrives in the curious form of the huge yew tree that looms over the cemetery, which suddenly uproots itself and comes to Conor’s window to announce, in Liam Neeson’s booming voice, that it will return on the three nights following to tell him a series of stories—after which he will be obliged to tell the tree one of his own. (Not quite Dickens’ Christmas spirits, but close.)
The first two tales told by the tree—which reappears each night at precisely 12:07, a time that will obviously have special meaning by the close—mingle Liam’s baritone with animation by Adrian Garcia. In the first, a prince tries to flee from his stepmother, a wicked witch who hopes to marry him to retain her hold on power, after his father dies. He takes with him the lovely girl he loves, but as they sleep beneath the tree’s branches the girl is murdered, and the prince immediately throws suspicion for her death on the queen. But the tale takes a surprising turn that shocks Conor.
On the next night, the tree relates the story of a greedy apothecary who once asked the priest of the church for permission to cut down the yew tree so that he could use it as an ingredient in his medicines. The priest adamantly refuses, citing his religious beliefs; but when his own children fall ill and he needs the apothecary’s help, his faith is tested. Once again, the story challenges the boy’s—and our—expectations about heroism and villainy. The overarching lesson of both of the tree’s tales is that things are never as simple as they seem, and that one must accept the fact that life is complex.
The tree’s third tale, about an invisible man who tires of not being noticed, eschews the animated format to connect with Conor’s own plight, his feeling that his pain is ignored by everyone around him even if it is not. Ultimately it leads to a conclusion that, one has to say, is not terribly surprising: that all of us, like Conor, must learn to accept what we cannot control, and that sometimes one has to let go of even those things and people we love most and learn to grieve and move on.
It’s difficult to argue with that lesson, and the fact that Ness based his work on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before the book appeared, makes it all the more poignant. But the film of “A Monster Calls” presents it in an unwieldy form that tries, with only mixed success, to combine grittiness, whimsy and a visual imagery that’s at once forbidding and somewhat precious. One has to admire the ambition of Bayona’s vision, but despite the flamboyance of his storytelling, this film fails to achieve the emotional resonance that his previous picture, “The Impossible”—another story of a young boy struggling to save his family in the face of disaster (though in that case a natural one)—did.
The fault lies primarily with the director and Ness, who never hit precisely the right tone their story demands. Certainly the cast can’t be blamed. MacDougall makes a sympathetic lead, even if he doesn’t match the sense of genuine desperation that Tom Holland brought to “The Impossible.” Jones is touchingly frail and loving, and Kebbell conveys both dad’s desire to help and the slacker-like mentality that inhibits his ability to do so. Weaver is not ideally cast as the boy’s severe grandmother, but she gives it her all, and almost pulls it off. The technical side of the film is also topnotch, with production designer Eugenio Caballero, cinematographer Oscar Faura and the special effects team working together to fashion an intoxicating look.
But the images aren’t everything, of course, and when one looks beneath its gorgeous surface, there’s less to the movie than meets the eye.