'A Monster Calls' Is A Five-Hankie Tearjerker Starring Liam Neeson As A Tree Monster [TIFF Review]

J.A. Bayona's adaptation of Patrick Ness' A Monster Calls is a five-hankie sobfest, a ruthlessly effective tearjerker even by cancer drama standards. The sniffles start with the premise. A boy (Lewis MacDougall) struggles with his mother's terminal illness, and calls upon a giant tree monster for help. The monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) forces a deal upon the boy: he'll tell three stories, after which the boy will have to reveal his own deepest, darkest secret.

The tales the monster tells are fantastical fairy tales about kings and witches and invisible men, and they're rendered onscreen in beautiful watercolor-inspired animation. They look less like mainstream American animation (Pixar, etc.) and more like the "Three Brothers" segment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But the monster's stories don't resolve neatly the way most fairy tales do. The villains aren't always who they seem to be, the good guys don't always get a happy ending, and plans backfire or take unexpected turns. When Connor protests, the monster replies, "Many things that are real feel like a cheat."

Liam Neeson's sonorous voice proves a perfect match for the monster, who looks like a cross between Groot and Optimus Prime. As an actor, Neeson can do tough or terrifying or tender, and he does them all here. Connor's mother, is more a concept than a character, but Felicity Jones brings a warmth to Lizzie that makes it impossible not to root for her. The rest of the limited supporting cast includes Sigourney Weaver as Connor's stiff-upper-lipped grandmother and Toby Kebbell as Connor's helpless dad. Both start out as familiar archetypes but slowly reveal themselves to be something more complicated.

A Monster Calls review

But A Monster Calls is really the boy's story, and MacDougall proves more than capable of carrying its emotional weight on his slumped shoulders. There's not a false note in his performance, and it's among the best of a year filled with strong child performances in films like The Jungle Book and Pete's Dragon. Because the film sticks with Connor's perspective, we learn things only as he does, but older kids and adults in the audience will pick up on things Connor is too young to understand — or, in some cases, too overwhelmed to allow himself to understand. (It's to MacDougall's credit that we can often tell the difference, even if Connor can't quite.)

Which is where the stories come in. A Monster Calls is a story about the power of stories to help us process emotions and events too big to grapple with any other way. "Stories are wild creatures," the monster warns Connor at one point. "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak." And what Connor is dealing with is huge. Even well-adjusted adults can be swallowed whole by the death of a parent; Connor is an only child of a single mom. A Monster Calls doesn't shy away from the ugly side of grief. Connor isn't some saintly suffering chid, but one who wrestles with anger and guilt and becomes prone to lashing out at those who care about him.

The film's refreshing honesty makes up for a lot of its less subtle manipulations. Bayona is so good at wringing tears that it becomes a bit exhausting, and much of the dialogue consists of characters simply spelling out the movie's themes. But even then, it's hard to deny his methods are effective. If you're in the mood for emotional catharsis, A Monster Calls is one of the weepiest experiences I've had at the theater this year. Bring tissues, more than you think you'll need. Bring some extra for your neighbor in case they forget. Then sit back and let the waterworks flow.

/Film rating: 7.0 out of 10