Parents be warned: J. A. Bayona and Patrick Ness’ kid-meets-beast coming-of-age fantasy is a reclamation of fairy stories from the reassuring fiction of happily ever after. In a lineup of holiday releases — or, soon, a streaming queue — this tale of a bullied Irish boy whose best friend is a talking yew tree might look like The BFG or any number of huggable E.T. rip-offs. But the sky-tall talking yew tree in A Monster Calls (directed by Bayona and scripted by Ness, based on his own novel) has teeth. Or thorns, at least. The film is tough-minded, often grim and intense, its lessons about death and grief hard in ways you aren’t conditioned to expect from pricey CGI entertainments.
You know the way, in every Hollywood animated film — by which I mean Zootopia or Moana or Captain America: Civil War — the actors are always called upon to shout things like “Oh, come on!” or “You have got to be kidding!” A Monster Calls, like Ness’ novel, operates by the logic of fable rather than set piece, so Liam Neeson — who voices the tree — instead intones lines like “Many things that are true feel like a cheat.” Later, spinning a yarn, he’ll say, “One day both little girls were struck by a terrible sickness.”
He speaks thus to Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a friendless Irish schoolboy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. You parents may be terrified, but older children will be fine — maybe even happy to be encountering the entirely un-American idea that adults shouldn’t feed kids false promises about things always working out OK.
What does work out: the stark, restless watercolor renderings of a trio of fairy tales that giant tells young Conor. The tales are prickly and mean, like unexpurgated Grimms, chockablock with murders, poisonings, religious intolerance, humanity’s indifference to suffering and fairyland realpolitik. What truly secures the prince’s ever-after is his consolidation of power, not the blessedness of his love match. Conor, probably like parents in the theater, quails at these cruelties: What is the lesson in them? How can they help him face true loss?
Meanwhile, Conor is bullied at school and can’t get along with the stiff grandmother he’s packed off to live with. Her home is full of breakables, of rooms kids mustn’t play in, but she’s played by Sigourney Weaver, so you know she’ll be a person rather than a caricature. Still, Conor starts to lash out, with terrible effect, inspired by the destructive sprees of his giant pal. When not sharing story-time, the tree smashes homes, encouraging Conor to join in, and its feet crunch satisfyingly through streets and courtyards. (The set-piece sequences work as both strong examples of the form and resonant critiques of it.) Moments later the world is as it was, the monster all in Conor’s head.
It’s when Conor gives in to those destructive impulses in real life that A Monster Calls is at its most thrilling and dangerous. Has any movie for kids since the original Willy Wonka so persuasively demonstrated the terribleness of acting out the fantasies that kids’ movies endorse? It’s scary stuff, both in the way life is scary and in the way movies are — graveyards crumble, tree roots spread and snarl and the boy’s bedroom trembles as his playmate approaches. Those fears, the shivery ones, are an escape. A Monster Calls makes room for the other kind, too.
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