In his first film since Oscar-nominated “The Impossible,” (coincidentally my favorite movie of 2012), J.A. Bayona continues his theme on suffering. Using mixed media of CGI characters, watercolor animation and live action, “A Monster Calls” is an emotional journey, perhaps even a tool for young people to cope with loss. There are many themes that run deep in Patrick Ness’ screenplay, based on a book he helped complete after the author’s own passing. A busy film that touches on bullying, cancer, parental separation and, of course, coming of age. Newcomer MacDougall (“Pan”) is surrounded by grade A supporting talent including Oscar nominee Jones (“Rogue One”), the iconic Weaver (“Chappie”) and the commanding voice behind the monster, Neeson.
Conor (MacDougall) could just be a normal introverted middle school student, bullied after school, excited about his artistic talent and occupied by an endless imagination. But Conor’s mom is dying of cancer, and everything else around him is unimportant. Each night he has a terrible dream, that his mother is falling into a dark hole, and he can barely hold on to her. Each night when he wakes from this dream, at 12:07 a.m. he is visited by a monster in the shape of an aged old tree that sway’s in front of his window in the distant grave yard. The monster will tell the boy three stories over time, stories that will teach him about the complexities of life, human nature and belief.
When the monster begins telling his first story, it’s presented through animation and the pace of the drama changes as it did when we first see the tree spring to life. Initially it felt like a disruption from the live action plot that was still in the early stages. Thankfully the animated sequence is briskly told, getting to both the conclusion and the moral rather quickly. Each story the monster tells is more like the fairy tales you wish Disney had the guts to explore. That being said, the mixture of so many various storytelling tools left my emotions a bit stunned and unable to get where I think the film wanted me to be when it hits that heart tugging crescendo. Jones nearly redeems herself from last year’s “Inferno” catastrophe, with limited but powerful screen time. However, Weaver is horribly miscast and/or her character poorly constructed and unfortunately one sided.
In some ways MacDougall’s performance reminded me of Thomas Horn in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Both characters, in their respective stories, are dealing with tragedy at the age of — too young to be an adult and too old to be a kid. Most of MacDougall’s performance comes from his teary eyes and cinematographer Oscar Faura’s ability to capture them. Bayona works well with children, as he did with “The Impossible” and “The Orphanage,” he tells the painful story through their eager eyes and fragile perspective. “A Monster Calls” isn’t a children’s movie, it’s quite a heavy film, even for adults. Its greatest achievement isn’t a cinematic element, nor a performance, rather its healing and comforting power.
Final Thought — Bayona orchestration of mixed media storytelling doesn’t always represent the emotional impact’s best interest.