Focus Features 108 minutes PG-13
This is not your average kids’ fable. As a matter of fact, we don’t consider this a kids’ movie at all. Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) effectively channels all the sadness, despair and magical horror of the book that has it’s own complicated, tragic story. A Monster Calls demands its characters feel everything intensely. British childrens’ author Siobhan Down began the book, but it was completed by Patrick Ness in 2007 after Down died of breast cancer.
We get yet another masterful performance delivered by a child actor. Joining mesmerizing turns by young actors in Moonlight and Lion, 14 year old Lewis MacDougall reaches deep down to find the emotion demanded from his 12 year old character, Conor. Sometimes Conor comes off as too wise and brave for his age, but this is a minor criticism compared to his performance overall.
Conor must endure a recurring nightmare that arrives at precisely the same time each night. The ground underneath the Northern England graveyard outside his bedroom window opens and swallows everything into its gaping hole. Conor grabs for his mother’s arm, but can’t hold on. The symbolism here is clear when we meet his gravely ill Mum. Played by Felicity Jones and, perhaps, the surrogate for the original author. Her love shines through despite her failing body.
The nightmare jolts Conor awake and each night, precisely at 12:07AM, the Monster takes shape. An old, huge yew tree in the graveyard comes to life. It uproots itself and transforms into a 40-foot-tall body of gnarled branches and fiery eyes. You won’t be far off base thinking this limber yet wooden creature conjures up Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy with a bit of Transformers (think Optimus Prime) thrown into the mix.
Voiced by Liam Neeson, who also provided the motion-capture-acting, this is no warm, fuzzy BFG! Neeson’s gutteral, booming bass voice is the focal point around which everything turns. The few moments when he lightens his tone provide a welcome relief from Conor’s bleak life. He has to care for Mum and deal with unrelenting bullies at school. He also faces having to live with his Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) who appears uncaring and cold while dealing with his distant, almost non-existent father (Tony Kebbell).
The Monster has come to tell Conor three stories on successive nights and then instructs Conor to tell his own truth. Heavy stuff for a 12-year-old. The stories are told through animation drawn in water color paintings. They are both beautiful to watch, but express hard lessons to learn.
This young boy is forced to deal with very adult problems. He manages to keep a lid on his emotions, for the most part, and lets it all pour out when he’s with The Monster, save for one harrowing scene when he tears apart his Grandma’s house. It builds until he finally lets his inner monster loose.
Within all the darkness of Conor’s life there is still beauty; in love, in art and finally in memory. Be warned, this is not a movie for kids younger than Conor himself. The moviemaking and the story telling is just as fascinating as it is heartbreaking. From now on if you’re awake when your clock strikes 12:07 AM you WILL take note.
This movie belongs to the interplay between Conor and The Monster and this kid more than holds up his end of the deal. Even though we’re watching an effects driven vehicle, it was easy to suspend that disbelief and get entangled in this story just as The Monster’s gnarly roots entangle and grip Conor.