There is a theme running through the films of Spanish director J.A. Bayona: the bond between a mother and her son, and the pain felt when circumstances pull at that connection.
It’s a theme that Bayona has explored with intense emotion and sensitivity in vastly different genres: in horror, in his breakout 2007 Spanish creeper “The Orphanage”; in the real-life tsunami disaster “The Impossible” (2012) with Naomi Watts and a pre-Spider-Man Tom Holland; and now in the dark fable “A Monster Calls.”
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a 12-year-old boy who knows through intuition what the adults in his life aren’t telling him: His mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. Conor wants to stay with Mum through her illness and resists suggestions that he live with his dad (Toby Kebbell), who left Mum not long ago, or with his stern grandma (Sigourney Weaver).
One night, Conor looks out at the tree in a yard behind his house, and suddenly it comes to life, pulling up its roots and taking massive, destructive steps. The tree speaks (in the voice of Liam Neeson), promising to tell Conor three stories. In exchange, Conor will have to answer by telling one truth that he has never told anyone else.
Through the tree monster’s stories, Conor finds himself expressing the rage he feels toward the bullies who torment him in school, Grandma’s perfectly ordered house, and the prospect of life without his mum. The results are terrifying and cathartic for Conor and the audience.
Make no mistake, Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) have delivered a four-hankie tear-jerker masquerading as a children’s fable, a Douglas Sirk melodrama illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Parents who take their kids (older ones, please; the visuals are high-octane nightmare fuel for anyone 8 and younger) should be prepared for some heartfelt conversation after about death and grief.
Bayona achieves this emotional gut-punch with the help of a strong cast — notably Jones (currently saving the Rebel Alliance in “Rogue One”), whose touching portrayal of the ailing Mum avoids most of the clichés common to such a role.
The movie’s most fascinating character turns out to be the monster itself, a collection of snaking branches with demon-red eyes — and brought to life by Neeson’s voice, which modulates from a tiger’s purr to a terrain-leveling roar. The reason “A Monster Calls” is so effective is that the monster doesn’t feel like the result of computer animators so much as the product of a child’s fantasies and deepest fears.