Spanish director J.A. Bayona was rather unlucky when it came to his big push into American theaters, The Impossible, because it wasn’t a story that actually fit his abilities. It’s serviceable direction, if an ultimately unengaging story, but it screams of something like Wes Anderson trying to direct Sully.
A Monster Calls is a fairy tale, and one that is provocative and depressing while trying to deconstruct difficult hideaways of the human mind, and that’s something Bayona knows how to work with. He constructs wild imaginings, whether special effects are in play at the moment or not, without going too far or not far enough, which is more difficult than it might seem.
Most importantly Bayona weaves the narrative together here with a complex mix of familiar and outlandish notes that struggle against themselves, adding to the ability to relate to our hero’s circumstance.
Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, who adapts for the screen, this is the story of a boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), dealing with the complications of adolescence while simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that his mother (Felicity Jones) has a terminal illness. He turns to a tree monster (Liam Neeson) for help, or a tree monster thrusts its help upon him, depending on how you look at things.
Whether it’s the overly straightforward bullying Conor deals with at school, the simplification of his grandmother’s “mean” attitude, or the crushing weight of a young boy having to contemplate the inevitable loss of his own mother, the film gives an impressive display of Conor’s perspective. Even in the realm of fairy tales, it’s hard to wrap your head around the inclusion of a giant tree monster opening the door for delivering a boy’s emotional state more realistically (as opposed to more metaphorically/allegorically), but that’s just what we have here.
As we meet our monster, who explains that he will tell Conor three stories, and then Conor will tell him one, we explore the confusion and anger the poor lad has to manage. For reasons both perfectly understandable and classically childish, Conor is adrift in a storm of feelings he can handle no more than he can name, and those with kids will be all too familiar with the desperate intensity with which they will avoid naming the beast.
MacDougall manages to pull the story along in a way you might expect to be the job of effects and/or monsters in a film almost overloaded with attempts at visual interpretations. He’s working beyond his years so well here that wondering what he can be drawing from almost becomes a distraction. In fact, I dare say that many of his biggest moments have layers beyond the script due to his ability to offer them up so perfectly. When he destroys his grandmother’s house, for example, we could put that window into a child’s psyche under the microscope for days, and while I’d like to give all the credit to Ness’ idea of the story, I don’t think I can.
There’s something of Grimm to this fairy tale, in the sense that humanity is laid bare and you probably hope someone will “Disney-fy” things so that you can tell the story to the young ones, and Bayona has pulled the visuals together to give it the power it deserves. There are some moments that feel rushed, or overly elongated, but overall this is an unforgettable telling of a story you somehow wish you’d been able to grow up with, but can’t necessarily bring yourself to revisit.