Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a middle school-aged boy dealing with several hardships. He is consistently bullied at school by Harry (James Melville), his father (Toby Kebbell) lives half a world away in America with a new family, and his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. The treatments that his mother is undergoing are not working properly and Conor is going to be forced to move into the home of his meticulous and cold grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Around that time is when he is visited by The Monster (Liam Neeson), a humanoid creature born out of a giant yew tree that watches over a cemetery out behind Conor’s mother’s home. The Monster comes to tell Conor three tales that will help him through the trying times he’s going through, but The Monster insists that by the end of the three, Conor will tell him a fourth, which is Conor’s recurring nightmare and, The Monster says, his truth. Will Conor find his way through the darkness or will he let himself be consumed by it?
The first thing that will strike you about A Monster Calls is the raw emotion of the story. This isn’t a film that eases the viewer into Conor’s situation. You’re thrown right in and you understand the stakes. So, understandably, a sense of melancholy inhabits the entire film, as it should considering the subject matter. Then, Bayona hits you with the amazing animation that accompanies all of The Monster’s stories to Conor. The different animation styles are absolutely breathtaking. It all combines to create an extremely affecting coming of age story. You really empathize with Conor in his rage and despair over what is happening in his life. Life is never fair and it is a message that this film hammers home eloquently. However, while life isn’t fair, you may still find beauty and love in it. Much of the credit for the heartfelt screenplay must come from the fact that it was adapted by the novel’s author, Patrick Ness. In most cases, when the author of the source material has this level of input, a lot of care goes into the final product. My only real strike against the film is that I would have liked to have seen some more scenes with Conor and his mother to really deepen their relationship. His father and grandmother are supposed to be distant and unknown to him, but he and his mother share a very close connection, so I would have liked to have seen more of that. We do get a video flashback, but I wanted more. It’s a minor quibble, though, in a very emotional film.
The cast does amazing work here with MacDougall more than holding his own with this veteran cast. He perfectly conveys all the emotions Conor needs to feel in this story and is likable throughout the film. You completely empathize with him and worry about him when he looks like he’s about to do something he’ll regret. After Rogue One, it was a delight to actually see Felicity Jones get to play a well-rounded character again. She exudes grace and charm as Conor’s ailing mother. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as Conor’s complex grandmother and she has several standout scenes. I also really enjoyed Toby Kebbell as Conor’s father. He does a fine job expressing the conflict of having a divided family. Finally, Liam Neeson’s voice work as The Monster is great and menacing when it has to be. I thought some of his dialogue was a little less formal than it should have been, but considering he springs from Conor’s mind, it makes sense.
Overall, A Monster Calls is one of the best films of 2016 and it should not be missed. It’s a visual marvel that hits all the right emotional notes and tells a nice coming of age story. Bring tissues, but know you’ll leave the theater satisfied.