“Many things that are true feel like a cheat.”
There’s a beauty and grace to J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls. This is a film blessed with a warmth and humanity that few family-geared entertainment can match. So why then does the end result feel so empty? Here is the third film this year about a troubled youth befriending a hulking giant — earlier we had Steven Spielberg’s lovely but ignored THE BFG and David Lowery’s wonderful, touching Pete’s Dragon. A Monster Calls is much more mature than those previous films; it’s a film geared more towards adults than for children. Which is fine — but the film’s substance can’t quite match that adult tone. The end result is something that seems trapped between two worlds — a mix of narrative simplicity targeted at younger audiences and tear-wrenching drama aimed at adults.
Steven Spielberg was able to somehow bridge that gap near the start of his career, making films not simply for the young or the old, but for everyone (i.e. E.T.). But Bayona is no Spielberg, talented though he may be. His A Monster Calls looks absolutely wonderful, awash in autumnal colors and downright gothic aesthetics, coupled with animated sequences that look like watercolors come to life. To be sure, A Monster Calls is a great film visually. It’s when you look past all the visuals that you run into problems.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a sullen, troubled boy. He has no friends, gets bullied at school, and is frequently lost in his own little fantasy world. But unlike most moody kids, there’s a method to Conor’s mopiness. His beloved mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. The various treatments she’s undergone have failed to work, even though Conor seems to be in denial about this, and her health has declined to the point that Conor might have to go live with his dreaded grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
One night, Conor is visited by a monster — a hulking creature comprised of a yew tree that looks sort of like a super muscular Ent. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the Monster wants to pull a Christmas Carol-like scenario with Conor: instead of him being visited by three ghosts, he will be told three stories. This is all building towards a fourth and final story which will reveal “the truth.” You can probably put two and two together and figure out what the final story is going to be about long before Conor does.
The fault in A Monster Calls may lie inLewis MacDougall’s performance. The young actor never seems capable of carrying the emotional weight his character struggles under. He’s fine when he has to seem angry, but any other emotion comes across as forced and false. The rest of the cast outshines him: Jones is sweet, although a bit too saintly, as Conor’s suffering mother; Sigourney Weaver is strong and commanding (although her British accent wavers a bit) as the grandmother; and Toby Kebbell Turns in a nice, brief performance as Conor’s distant father. The highlight, though, is Neeson, employing the rumbling timbre of his voice to maximum effect. Even with a voice-only performance, Neeson is a remarkable (look for the actor in a super-brief physical cameo as well).
I want to like A Monster Calls. It’s made up of elements of other films that I often enjoy. But the final result is lacking. There are scenes that elicit tears, but they come off as far too manipulative — tears engineered strictly through the use of soundtrack and lighting rather than honest, earned emotion. Of course, all tears that are shed during films are manipulated in some way — that’s what film does on a very basic level: manipulates us. But the best films manipulate in a subtle way; they’re able to project us into the film, or find ways to make the characters our surrogates. A Monster Calls never achieves this. When the film ends, you’ll dry your tears and promptly forget about it. you’ll forget about it after you leave the theater
This review originally appeared on 9/15/2016