A Monster Calls, the heartbreaking fairytale that opens Friday, will make you cry a lot harder than Rogue One. That's because it's a better movie. Both star Felicity Jones, but only in A Monster Calls does one recognize her as the marvelous talent who was nominated for an Academy Award two years back for The Theory of Everything.
Jones plays the mother of a boy named Connor (Lewis MacDougall), and she is dying.
To help him cope with his impending loss, Connor conjures a tree-monster, an ent-like beast with glowing bark, voiced by Liam Neeson.
In his waking hours, Connor suffers the tense preparations for his mother's death, though no one tells him what's actually going on: He moves in with his stern grandma (Sigourney Weaver) while his mother stays at the hospital for last-ditch treatment options; he gets a visit from his father, now living in America (Toby Kebbell), and he sustains repeated beatings by bullies at school. Connor is a loner who spends most of his time with his nose in a sketchpad.
In his imagination, the Monster visits Connor and tells him three tales, tales which are meant (we know) to help him understand the senselessness of what's happening to his mom and the tumult of the emotions inside him. Voiced by Neeson, the tales are brought to animated life onscreen by director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) and visual effects supervisor Felix Berges; they're somewhat reminiscent of the animated Deathly Hallows sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1.
Much more visually impressive is the Monster itself, created using a hybrid of computer animation and animatronics. One can somehow see Neeson in the movement and expressions of the tree — no accident, given that its movements were influenced by motion capture work prior to principal cinematography. Though partly animated, the Monster interacts with Connor and the real world in a way that seems more authentic than with many other on-screen hybrids, where you can tell actors are performing a scene without a partner and a CGI character is inserted in post-production.
The movie soars, though, on the backs of the lead performances by Jones and young MacDougall. This is deeply sad material, but in their hands it never feels too grating or overwrought. Jones conveys not only the anger at the injustice of her illness, but the terror and the guilt of abandoning her only son. MacDougall highlights not only the despair of losing a parent, but the rage directed at the parent, and the secret impatience with the tragedy.
Based on the YA novel by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls is a heart-wrenching post-holiday gem. — Sam Allard