“Stories are wild creatures,” a CGI tree monster tells a young British lad in an otherwise tranquil home somewhere in the meandering middle of “A Monster Calls,” the latest film from Spanish director J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”). The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson (“Silence”), comes at night to tell stories to a boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall, “Pan”), who is confronting his mother’s impending death from cancer. Conor’s father lives in America and his grandmother, his new guardian, is more strict than caring. At school, he’s bullied by his classmates and picked on by his teacher.
In other words, Conor’s not all right. And the monster, armed with a gnarly Northern Irish voice and formed from the old yew tree in the cemetery across the glen, coaches the kid to be brave through telling three fairy tales, two of which are stunningly rendered in watercolor animation. The message is clear: Stories are important because they teach us valuable lessons about life’s complexities. The shame in including this conceit in “A Monster Calls” is that while screenwriter and source book author Patrick Ness (“Class”) puts a premium on the power of stories, his story itself lacks the structure and potency to salvage the film from an onslaught of poor choices.
Even more frustrating is that what one garners to be the purpose of the stories — to teach that life is complex, that there are no easy answers — is directly repudiated by the simplicity of the characters on screen. While Conor, an avid and talented artist, draws effervescent images of his world, Bayona and Ness draw in rather wide, bland strokes.
Conor’s mother (Felicity Jones, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) is a Dying Family Member With Cancer, rapidly diminishing, hopeless, soft-spoken and flawless save for a malignant tumor. We’ve seen this before, too many times. Conor’s grandmother, an abnormally off Sigourney Weaver (“Avatar”), is just cruel and cold, concerned more with her house’s orderly appearance than her grandson’s sanity. Conor’s bully lashes out at our protagonist continually, for no reason other than that Conor is consumed by his art during classes. He’s beat up outside the school on multiple occasions, and his schooling life is reduced entirely to this two-handed relationship, as if they two are the only students at the school.
The film, overstuffed with both platitudes and extraneous thematic vehicles like Conor’s art and the stories and the monster itself, becomes something of a mockery of its central idea. Stories surely have transformative potential, but “A Monster Calls” is not one of those stories. Nor are the monster’s, but they at least get credit for being jaw-dropping in their realization. These fairy tales, dreamlike and captivating, provide all-too-brief respites from the utter blandness of the story that practically serves as their bookends. They’re pure cinematic candy but suffer from a dearth of groundbreaking lessons. Life doesn’t have easy answers, things are confusing and it’s all right to make mistakes. We get it.
I fear this film may matter or mean more for individuals older and younger than myself, but that should only serve to diminish its quality. The specific is universal insofar as that specific world is constructed to lifelike specifications. “A Monster Calls” is cinematic dog-whistle politics, a tale about grief told in ways only those who have unfortunately and severely experienced it would truly understand.