J.A Bayona gently and impressively helms this adaptation of Patrick Ness’ young adult novel, a peculiar film that’s perhaps too dark for children but too soft for an adult audience. Young star Lewis MacDougall is a sensational discovery, more quietly expressive than any of his adult co-stars but exploding with tragic rage when necessary. He plays Conor, whose mother is stricken with cancer while he suffers vicious bullying and attempts to bond with his seemingly uncaring grandmother. As his ill mother, Felicity Jones brings the unique warmth she lacked in Rogue One and Inferno, displaying the enormous range of her talents. Sigourney Weaver is somewhat unconvincing as the grandmother, but the lack of understanding between her and Conor is conveyed strongly throughout the film, and- in a rare live-action role- Toby Kebbell delivers an incredibly sympathetic turn as Conor’s absent father.
As Conor struggles to cope with the deterioration of his small-town life, he is visited by an ancient yew tree (Liam Neeson), who vows to tell him stories and- in return- reveal Conor’s ‘necessary truth’. It is upon the tree’s arrival that the film evolves into a modern-day fairytale; the tree’s tales are told in stunning watercolour animation, and the film becomes tonally comparable to darker children’s fantasies like Bridge to Terabithia. The tree’s animation, reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth as much as Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Groot, is significantly more sophisticated than both its often-grating dialogue and Neeson’s at-odds voice work. As a result, it never becomes as believable a creation as the film requires to achieve its full potential.
Displaying surprising restraint and resultantly never succumbing to sentimentality, A Monster Calls has a deep and lovingly-crafted emotional core. Bayona shows true artistry, and his cast are excellent, but the film’s various elements don’t come together as meaningfully as one might have hoped.