Run time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Stars: Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver
Director: J.A. Bayona
A kids movie you would never allow your son or daughter to see should be a film studio's worst nightmare. Indeed, although A Monster Calls is way too scary for viewing by younger kids, it is told from a child's-eye view. And while garden-variety childhood fears fuel the dark fantasy, it ratchets up those anxieties to an almost unbearable pitch.
But let's leave those contradictions to the marketing department for now because A Monster Calls is a minor masterpiece. Thanks to a thoughtful script, powerful performances and a monumental visual palette, the film takes hold of you from frame one, immerses you in a young boy's kaleidoscopic imagination and leaves you almost physically exhausted at its heartfelt conclusion.
By then it's clear that director J.A. Bayona and writer Patrick Ness (adapting his young-adult novel) never intended to make a movie for children; instead, the film is aimed at grownups who remember being children — and not just the firefly-chasing parts.
Young Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is an English boy with a thriving imagination and a dying mother (Felicity Jones). Never mind the adults reassuring him that Mum will be fine — Conor (and the audience) can see right through this well-intentioned lie. He's bullied at school. He feels hated by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). And he's visited every night, at precisely seven minutes past midnight, by a towering monster that takes shape from the silhouette of a giant tree in the nearby graveyard.
The Monster, voiced by Liam Neeson and given life by breathtaking computer animation, extends his leafy tendrils, scoops up Conor to within inches of his bark-covered face and tells the boy a new tale each night. These unfold as a series of fairy tales — lush watercolors brought to life — but often end tragically. And with each fresh installment, the Monster warns that he will soon demand that Conor tell him a story in return. A story about what? "The truth," the Monster responds.
That truth, when revealed, gets to the shattered heart of all that Conor dreads — and, truth be told, to the pitch-black recesses of any adult who has faced the impending death of a loved one. It's as devastating a movie moment as you'll experience this year.
As Conor's grandmother, Weaver gives a sublimely layered performance. She plays a woman mourning the imminent death of her daughter and deeply conflicted about that event's most innocent survivor: a boy whom she loves but who will always remind her of her loss. At first we see Grandma (she is never named) through Conor's constricted perspective: mean and cold as an English winter. Slowly, though, her true nature unfolds before our eyes, and ultimately, it hits us that we are viewing grief from two directions — youthful incomprehension and sad experience.
On second thought, don't leave the kids home. Take them to see A Monster Calls. Then gather close and share a good, cleansing cry.
Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.