From its elegant title to its unexpectedly edgy tone, "A Monster Calls" makes its own way. Directed by J.A. Bayona, it’s a gently spooky hybrid, mixing any number of elements — fable and reality, animation and live action, special effects and sincerity — in a way that, not surprisingly, is intended for both children and adults.
Bayona ("The Orphanage," "The Impossible") has always been a gifted visual director. But here he's been helped by some strong acting, not just by "Rogue One" star Felicity Jones as a young mother with a terrible disease, but especially by the odd-couple combination of newcomer Lewis MacDougall as her 12-year-old son, Conor O'Malley, and the 64-year-old veteran Neeson as the monster in question.
Set in the cheerless north of England, the film begins with what we come to recognize as one of Conor's recurrent nightmares: an austere nearby church and its graveyard collapse into an enormous gaping crater that is threatening to swallow his mother as well. As both parent and child scream in terror, he loses his grip on his mother and she starts to disappear into the abyss.
Waking with the proverbial start, the clearly distraught Conor does things not usual for 12-year-olds on school days: he makes his own breakfast, gets the laundry started and looks in on his sleeping mother, whose wan look and short hair signal the seriousness of the unnamed disease she is suffering from.
At school, things do not improve, as Conor can't concentrate on his studies and is bullied unmercifully by a handful of thuggish louts.
Back home, Conor has an additional worry. It's the thought of having to move in with his obdurate grandmother (an unconvincing Sigourney Weaver), a toe-the-line type he feels no connection to.
Then in the dead of night, he hears a voice calling. Looking out his upstairs window, he is shocked to see a large yew tree magically metamorphosize into an enormous, 40-foot-tall monster, made of roots and branches with fire burning inside, a dour and relentless being with a mission on his mind.
Making the ground shake as he approaches, the monster presents Conor with an agenda. He will return on consecutive nights and tell the boy three stories, after which the tables will be turned: "You will tell me a fourth and it will be the truth. Your truth."
Referencing the fact that Conor likes to draw, the monster's three tales are presented in vivid animation created by the Spanish firm Headless Productions. They are wonderfully conveyed, and so is the beast itself.
Both real and a reflection of Conor's mental state, the creature is not meant to be seen as a representative of another world but part of us, adversary and guardian spirit all rolled into one. Conor is fortunate to have him around, and so are we.
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson.
Director: J. A. Bayona.
Screenwriter: Patrick Ness.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 108 minutes. Scary images, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.