There’s hurt seeping around the edges of J.A. Bayona’s movies when they’re not simply fixed on grief. From his debut, the haunted-house “The Orphanage” (2007) to 2012’s “The Impossible,” about a family’s survival in the face of an Asian tsunami, and now, the fantastical, melancholy “A Monster Calls,” cruel fate’s looming power to snatch anyone at all away is ever-present. (Especially a mother from a child.) An intense concentration on suffering floods all three features. (I haven’t seen the episodes of “Penny Dreadful” directed by Bayona.) While battling bullying schoolmates, twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) fears for his mother (Felicity Jones), who has a terminal illness. As partial compensation, Conor draws, sketching an expressive world of monsters for himself. But a guide appears at Conor’s window, an ancient monster in the form of an immense yew tree, animated from motion capture of Liam Neeson, whose voice tells intricate fairytales. (In dreams begins therapy.) The adventures with the monster are digitally animated, a bold, expansive world apart from Conor’s lonesome everyday. (While superficially similar to Steven Spielberg’s 2016 “The BFG,” there’s little frivolity in “A Monster Calls.”) Wildness and comfort alternate to touching effect. Adapted by Patrick Ness from his novel. With Sigourney Weaver as his stern grandmother and Toby Kebbell as his father. 108m. (Ray Pride)
“A Monster Calls” opens Friday, January 13.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.