A Monster Calls (Focus Features, PG-13)

A Monster Calls does not entirely succeed in its ambitious undertaking, but it does offer enough pleasures to make it worth your while.

Life is hard for 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougal)—a sensitive child, he’s bullied at school, his father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and is about to leave for America, his maternal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a tyrant of cartoonish proportions, and the one person he can relate to, his mother (Felicity Jones), is dying of cancer. Conor is also troubled by a recurring nightmare that would scare the bravest adult and has no one to help him sort out these troubles.

Conor is the hero of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, an ambitious film that seeks to combine a realistic family drama with a gothic fairytale, using several styles of visual presentation to match the different layers of storytelling in the film. Since the ordinary human world has failed Conor, guidance must come through a giant yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) just outside his window. This animated tree is the monster of the title and first comes to Conor in his dreams, always at 12:07 a.m.—leaving you to decide whether the tree sequences are actually happening in the real world or take place only in Conor’s head.

The tree does not deal in straightforward advice, of course, but offers Conor three stories that carry messages he can only understand after he is willing to abandon his childlike faith in simple morals and received wisdom. In these stories, witches are not always evil, beautiful people are not always good, and rejecting things you don’t understand may be convenient but also self-defeating. Even more important than the stories the tree tells, however, is the challenge given to Conor to tell one true story of his own, an effort that will lead him to understand what his recurring nightmare is really about.

The tree is an impressive bit of CGI, both terrifying and oddly comforting, while the stories it tells are beautifully animated like a child’s fairytale book come to life. Both contrast with the realistic presentation of present-day England, where Conor must cope with ordinary problems of life. The ambitious attempt to combine these layers of storytelling doesn’t always work, however, and this film might have worked better if done entirely through animation, with different styles signaling shifts from the real world to that of fantasy.

A Monster Calls may have worked on the page (Patrick Ness wrote the screenplay from his children’s novel of the same name), when more can be left to the imagination; in this film, where everything is enacted before you, the story becomes overly pedantic. In particular, the parallels between the characters in the fairy tale stories and those in Conor’s real life are overly obvious for anyone but a small child, yet the film as a whole is too scary (particularly the realistic view it offers of someone dying of cancer) for children young enough to want to have everything spelled out for them. On the plus side, the over-the-top nature of Weaver’s character is somewhat redeemed once you realize that she’s really a fairytale character living in the real world. In the end, A Monster Calls does not entirely succeed in its ambitious undertaking, but it does offer enough pleasures to make it worth your while. | Sarah Boslaugh

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