A young British boy struggles to come to terms with the impending death of his cancer-stricken mother in this ambitious mix of terminal illness drama and fantasy.
12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is having recurring nightmares, which depict the church and graveyard on the hill outside his window being swallowed by the earth. His mother (Felicity Jones) is sick from the chemo treatments and when the inevitable happens, Conor faces the prospect of having to live with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). His absent father (Toby Kebbell) is relocating to LA, and he’s being bullied at school. Life’s dealt this kid a cruel hand.
And then a monster calls in the form of a giant walking, talking yew tree (a spectacular CGI creation with the sonorous voice of Liam Neeson) whose, err, bark is worse than its bite. This mega-Groot, or arthouse Ent, becomes a benevolent companion to Conor, telling him three fables that parallel his current situation – stories of a prince, a wicked queen and an invisible man (all rendered as beautiful animated watercolours) – and demanding that the boy provide a fourth tale in return, which must be the truth.
There are shades of Pan’s Labyrinth in a fantasy creature conjured to shield a child from real world trauma, and director J.A. Bayona delivers the emotional punch and knockout visual style that distinguished his superb debut feature The Orphanage, while eschewing the overt sentiment of his second, The Impossible. (Bayona has since been poached by Hollywood for the Jurassic World sequel, which bodes well for that forthcoming blockbuster.)
Featuring uniformly fine performances, especially from newcomer MacDougall, A Monster Calls is an imaginative and affecting experience that fans of Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton are advised to check out – and everyone else for that matter. Just be sure to bring tissues.
In cinemas: July 27, 2017
Starring: Lewis McDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
Directed by: J.A. Bayona