Even with all the special effects and practical effects wizardry available to the movie world, sometimes you see a fable brought to live action on the big screen and you think: “Hmmmm. Maybe it would have worked better as a pure animated film.”
Such is the case with “A Monster Calls,” a mostly well-filmed and well-intentioned but only occasionally involving adaptation of the children’s book about a lonely boy with a dying mother who is visited in the dead of night by the forbidding tree outside his bedroom window.
Yes, a tree. A giant, sprawling tree with enormous, intertwining branches that morph into arms and legs and a humanlike face — fire brimming in his eyes and his mouth, and a booming voice that sounds very much like Liam Neeson.
You might find this monster-tree to be a wondrous, magical onscreen creation. His (its?) spell was lost on me, in part because the great Liam Neeson’s theatrical line readings kept taking me out of the story and reminding me it was Liam Neeson voicing that tree. (He sounds like Aslan from “The Chronicles of Narnia,” only much angrier.)
Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O’Malley, an English schoolboy of about 12. He’s a quiet, thoughtful, sweet, quirky kid who is troubled by disturbing nightmares of his mother falling into the abyss in a church graveyard — only to wake up to a life even more terrifying than his dreams.
Conor’s mom (Felicity Jones, the heroine in “Rogue One”) is dying of cancer. His father (Toby Kebbell) is long gone, living in California with his new family. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a cold, harsh woman who seems more attached to the fine objects in her house than to her grandson.
Oh, and just about every day when Conor goes to school, he is taunted and teased – and beaten up – by a pack of bullies.
This makes for one overcrowded assemblage of issues.
Somewhere from within Conor’s subconscious, a monster calls in the form of that hulking, earth-rattling, disturbing tree, who visits Conor in Conor’s darkest moments — not to terrorize the boy, but to teach him life lessons and help him get to the truth behind those nightmares about his mother.
The monster tells Conor three stories on three consecutive nights, and tells Conor the fourth story will come from Conor and will be Conor’s and it will be “the truth — your truth.” Each story contains a lesson, but the lesson is not easily uncovered.
Director J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) is a gifted stylist, and he infuses the animated parables with arresting visuals created by the Spanish animation team known as Headless Productions. (The set designs and the attention to detail regarding Conor’s illustrations are equally impressive.)
Conor summons the monster to help him fight back against the bullies, act out against his grandmother and voice his rage at the fate of his mother. (Only he can see the monster, of course, because the monster lives only in his imagination.)
Often, though, these moments of clarity and triumph are more disturbing than uplifting. We’re rooting for Conor, but some of his actions are indicative of someone in need of serious and immediate care.
Sigourney Weaver’s icy grandmother character is another drawback. She clearly loves her daughter (although she’s awfully pushy with the poor girl), but there’s no rhyme nor reason for her almost cruel indifference to Conor.
“A Monster Calls” is based on the internationally best-selling, critically acclaimed novel written by Patrick Ness, who was inspired by an idea that came to the writer Siobhan Dowd when she was dying of cancer. It aims straight for our hearts, sometimes hitting the target, especially in some of the quieter scenes with Conor and his mother.
But then the preachy tree rears its thorny head, and it keeps on talking and explaining, long after we get it, we get it, we get it.
Rating: Two and a half stars out of four