★ ★ ★ ★ ½
The opening credits of Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein (1931) bill Boris Karloff with an agnostic “?,” apparently an attempt to avoid spoiling the big reveal. There are no such illusions in the opening credits of A Monster Calls, since it ruins nothing to know that there’s a monster in this movie, or that Liam Neeson provides the sonorous voice and motion-capture performance for its gnarled Colossus of Rhodes, which is knitted together from thick tree roots and seething with embers inside. This botanical golem appears at precisely 12:07 a.m. every night to young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a pinched and sleepless dreamer of a boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. He has taken over the care of their household as cancer eats away at her, and their dismal home is only as clean as a small boy can manage to keep it. His martinet grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants to take him in. His father (Toby Kebbell) wants to whisk him away to his home in L.A., but only for a short visit. A bully at school (James Melville) keeps heaping on the misery. Conor copes with his paucity of options by drawing precociously skilled sketches late into the night—and that’s when the monster calls, offering a declaration: He will tell the boy three stories (which are lavishly visualized in medievalist animations, spilling ink and watercolors across the screen), and then the boy will tell him a fourth and final story. The boy has no choice in the matter. Some things in life cannot be refused.
A Monster Calls is a movie with a child at the center, but is it a children’s movie? No, not if gentle entertainment is the only thing a children’s movie is allowed to be, and this film isn’t gentle: It’s about The Big Questions, and it goes beyond tearjerking into teardredging, trawling up long-repressed primal terrors in the sludge at the bottom of every viewer’s soul. Most kids’ movies protect tender sensibilities by purring that evil is buffoonish and vanquishable, that nothing truly terrible can ever happen, that Mother is near, that all will be set right in the end. The unacknowledged truth is that those wishes belong less to kids and more to the adults who now know otherwise. But some kids know otherwise, too. Some kids have lost a friend, lost a sibling, lost a parent—have had the veil ripped away, leaving part of their spirit naked and shivering. This film bravely lays the woolen blanket of grief’s truth—heavy, scratchy, but sustaining and necessary—over their shuddering shoulders. And any adult who has lost someone dear can also find profound comfort in its unflinching weight.
Roger Ebert once said that “if you go to the movies long enough you will finally see yourself on the screen.” A Monster Calls is where the bereaved—meaning everyone, eventually—will see the journey of their soul, and the light at the end of their crushing grief. This penetrating achievement, equal parts The Iron Giant and Pan’s Labyrinth, rewards those who have the emotional courage to submit to its honesty and sublimity.