In many ways, "A Monster Calls" is a lovingly rendered meditation on grief, packing plenty of bark and just enough sap to keep it sweet. But why oh why was I not precipitously more moved by director J.A. Bayona's interpretation of Patrick Ness' award-winning novel about a 12-year-old British boy flailing for a remedy to deal with a band of schoolyard bullies and a gaunt, yet glamorous, mother rapidly dying of cancer? The answer, I think, lies in Bayona. The talented Spaniard -- and close friend of master filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro -- can do no wrong when it comes to visuals, and he's concocted an eye-popping display of cinematic beauty with his latest effort. Yet, like his last film, "The Impossible," a thundering recreation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, "A Monster Calls" is an optical masterpiece in desperate search of a soul. And locating its essence is a quest that regrettably eludes Bayona. If only he held a Spielbergian knack for tapping emotions … Still, what's here is impressive, in much the same vain as a splashy painting or wondrously designed architectural structure -- grand in design, but inanimate to the heart. It's not like you don't yearn to love it. You do. But Bayona insists on playing it cool and calculated, as if all life is mechanized. That carries over to the performances by Felicity Jones as the dying mother and Sigourney Weaver as the boy's cold-as-ice nana. Apparently, newcomer Lewis MacDougall didn't get the memo because the pint-sized Scot is the only actor aware "A Monster Calls" is a 10-gallon tearjerker.
He's Conor O'Malley, a quiet, sensitive boy who is catnip for his Neanderthal classmates who constantly confuse him for a punching bag. But it's not like he actually feels their blows to his angelic face and rail-thin torso. His hurt is all on the inside, courtesy of the savage disease that's slowly, painfully rotting his mother away. With his father (Toby Kebbell) thousands of miles away in Los Angeles with his "new" family, Conor has zero opportunity for venting his fear, sorrow and frustration over the very real prospect of losing his mother. So, as is a child's want, he reverts to his wild imagination; or, more precisely, his dreams.
Each night at approximately 12:07 a.m., he summons a hulking yew tree from the nearby cemetery to saunter over to his mum's flat, crushing everything in its wake, like Godzilla rumbling through downtown Tokyo. Thanks to a herculean effort by an army of special effects technicians, the plant (voiced and flawlessly performed courtesy of motion capture by Liam Neeson) comes spectacularly alive, like a shape-shifting Transformer in which branches become appendages and roots are fingers and toes. Instantly, images of the monster from Spielberg's "The BFG" come to mind, but this creature possess far more gravitas and menace, making "A Monster Calls" perhaps too intense for small fries.
Bigger kids -- and in that group I include adults with an iota of childlike whimsy -- will be intrigued more than frightened by the barking hunk of bark, who's come to both tell Conor three stories and demand Conor construct one of his own. This presents the movie with an artistic boon in that the Monster's stories -- offering lessons in moral complexities -- are accompanied by gorgeous animations that heighten the film's strong fantasy elements. But they also mess with the movie's continuity as it abruptly oscillates between live action and the ethereal drawings by the film's inventive animators.
What saves it is MacDougall's precocious portrayal of a boy whose real monsters are all in his head -- and in his true feelings toward his mother's illness. And they are feelings he cannot be honest with himself about until he learns -- through the Monster -- that what he's feeling is merely part of being human. It's a great lesson not just for kids, but any adult dealing with the imminent loss of a loved one. It reminds us that it's OK to rage and resent, to lash out and crave the catharsis of simply smashing something to bits. But there's no escaping the belief that "A Monster Calls" should have been much better than it is, especially with Ness handling the adaptation of his novel. It's not until the very last scene -- when Conor learns that he and his mother were more alike than he ever imagined -- do the tears finally come. But by then, your rooting interest in Bayona's tall tree tale may well have dissipated into a mealy pulp.
"A Monster Calls"
Cast includes Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall and the voice of Liam Neeson.
(PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images.)