By Richard von Busack
Like the fairy-tale creature that he is, the title character in A Monster Calls brings a challenge. In accordance with the Law of Three, he will tell three stories. You, in return, must tell him one true tale.
Seeing him emerge from a massive yew tree, unfolding into a gnarled figure of some 20 feet in height, one thinks of the line from the old folk song “The Silkie”: “And a grumly guest I’m sure was he.” Towering, ancient and solitary, he’s like the warrior Ents in The Lord of the Rings or a more frightening and better-spoken Groot. The rumbling voice belongs to Liam Neeson, pitched down an octave or two, and all the fiercer for it.
The animation in the three stories this monster tells is as gorgeous as Kubo and the Two Strings—forests and villages unfold like paper blossoms, or spiral out into the multi-colored fractals of wet-on-wet watercolors. J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) centers his touching film on the emotions of the monster’s companion. Conor (Lewis MacDougall), an English schoolboy, has a mother who is slowly dying, and he’s pitilessly bullied at school. The mother is Rogue One’s Felicity Jones, in perhaps her best performance. Most likely, Conor’s future home will be with his loveless grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, using a self-conscious British accent she probably could have done without). Conor hopes to be spared a life with this cold woman, when his father arrives from his current home in the USA. But the man is useless. Dad’s idea of consolation begins and ends with his repeating the old English expression, “Worse things happen at sea.”
It seems that Patrick Ness’ source novel would be most mind-blowing to a younger reader, with the revelation that a story that starts with witches and handsome princes may finish in a different way than the Grimm Brothers wrote it down. However, A Monster Calls retrieves its essential keenness in its finish, in the story Conor must tell and yet cannot bring himself to say. This hard-edged fantasy reveals honest, unsentimental feelings … the sort of feelings many will recall from the ordeal of tending doomed lovers or parents, after some monstrous disease called upon them.