Director J.A. Bayona’s debut feature The Orphanage (2007) showed his ability to portray horror from a child’s perspective. His next film, The Impossible (2012), proved he could use state of the art special effects to serve his story rather than detract from it. Both films demonstrated a skill in portraying the unique bond between mother and son, particularly when malevolent forces threaten that relationship. His latest film portrays a mother and son facing one of the most malevolent and mysterious of forces: cancer.

In the tradition of classics like The Wizard of Oz and Pan’s Labyrinth, A Monster Calls is the tale of a child navigating a devastating real-life scenario while attempting to traverse a fantasy landscape. Bayona avoids overt metaphor and allows each viewer to determine their own suspension of disbelief. This kind of work can be a difficult balancing act, but the film works both as a fantasy and as serious drama.

The story is deceptively simple: Conor (Lewis MacDougall) must cope with the diagnosis of cancer for his mother (Felicity Jones). As his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) tries to prepare him for the worst and his absent father (Toby Kebbel) shirks responsibility, Conor turns to the ancient yew tree outside his bedroom window for solace. The yew awakens to become the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who will tell the boy three tales, after which Conor must tell him a fourth tale.

These tales, portrayed in stunning animation reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, perfectly balance fairytale bombast with tragically real conclusions. Each story helps bring Conor closer to the horrible reality he must face, while tempering the horror with gorgeous animation and Neeson’s deep, warm dulcet tones.

Newcomer MacDougall gives a nuanced performance, resisting the urge to overact despite a story bustling with fantasy, tragedy and horror. Weaver is devastating as a woman who tries to appear steady and firm for her grandchild while facing the heartbreaking prospect of outliving her own child. Neeson’s voice work is sensitive and alive, drawing laughs, cheers and tears. Despite the uniformly strong work of her fellow cast members, Felicity Jones emerges as a revelation, as difficult as that may be for an Oscar-nominee. Jones takes the awards bait trope of terminally ill everywoman and transforms it into a heroine for the ages, a heartbreaking combination of unconditional love, immaturity, horror, hopelessness and bravery.

The film soars in its fantasy sequences, but unfortunately, even though it clocks in under two hours, A Monster Calls drags in some of its reality, as when Conor sits around brooding or bullied or fighting with his grandmother. Despite excellent performances and a compelling story, the film suffers when Neeson or Jones are absent, which happens all too often.

Still, in this era of superhero blockbusters and interminable sequels, it’s a pleasure to stumble onto a special-effects-driven film with such a unique voice and sensitive tale to spin. While even the Star Wars franchise (which added Jones to its roster in Rogue One) grounds its fantasy in the reality of politics, A Monster Calls speaks to the storytelling that helps us endure and understand our most difficult trials and tribulations.

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