A Monster Calls’ takes its gentle fable in a dark direction

Lewis MacDougall and his companion (voiced by Liam Neeson) in A Monster Calls.

Two and a half stars

A Monster Calls Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver. Directed by J.A. Bayona. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

The monster in A Monster Calls is more like a grief counselor, helping young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) deal with his mother’s terminal cancer. Based on the children’s book by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), the movie takes a bombastic, effects-heavy approach to a dreamlike fable, making the monster that Conor inadvertently summons into a scary creature voiced by Liam Neeson. The blockbuster-style effects often overshadow the story, as the monster, manifesting from a yew tree outside Conor’s house, looks like something out of a Marvel movie, ready to join the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Instead, the monster only tells Conor stories, dark fables illustrated via beautiful painterly animation. There’s a complex message here about coming to terms with loss, but it’s conveyed inconsistently around the set pieces. Felicity Jones looks great as Conor’s dying mother, and Sigourney Weaver is intimidating as his stern grandmother, but they’re never more than archetypes. Instead of capturing the haunting power of mentor Guillermo del Toro’s films about childhood trauma (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), director J.A. Bayona comes closer to the manipulative sentimentality of his last film, tsunami drama The Impossible. Too dark and intense for young children and too precious and stilted for adults, A Monster Calls handles a delicate subject with clumsy bluster.

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