Recently writing about Collateral Beauty and Passengers, New Yorker critic Richard Brody observed that fantasy is “the hardest genre to pull off, for the simple reason that life is interesting.” That's an astute diagnosis of why most fantasy is so tedious to take in, whether on the page or screen, as it's rooted in borrowed jargon that's about nothing more than its own existence. Watching an uninspired fantasy, one's trapped in a sensory-deprivation tank of exposition that's molded to serve a trite catch-and-release pattern: dutifully wade through talk of growth and prophecies and you're rewarded with an action scene or teary catharsis that you'll have forgotten by the end credits. There's no sense of incidental detail, of spontaneity, of poetry, of life, because every element serves shopworn spectacle.
This is all certainly true of A Monster Calls, which places character types strategically in a rigged narrative so as to make the obvious, constantly made point that death is painful but must be properly survived by the living. Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a less likeable than usual member of cinema's club of perennially sensitive children, who walks to the beat of his own drummer and to the predictable consternation of his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and the bullies at school who beat him with surprising viciousness. The only person who understands Conor is his mother (Felicity Jones), a free spirit in all caps who's dying of a vaguely defined disease, so as to offensively encourage us to process her encroaching death as a cleanly generic metaphor for change, per the tropes of most mediocre coming-of-age movies.
A Monster Calls is both governed and straitjacketed by director J.A. Bayona’s competent impersonality.
The reeling boy is soon visited by the Monster (Liam Neeson), a large, looming entity that sprouts promisingly out of the large tree in Conor's yard, suggesting an Ent from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The Monster talks tough at first, but audiences accustomed to fables of this sort will be unsurprised to learn that he's a softie at heart.
Throughout the film, director J.A. Bayona tethers this narrative to typical pop-cultural shorthand, using the story's universality as a pretense for indulging cliché: The mother's illness is dramatized with a chaste bit of hair loss, the grandmother's austerity telegraphed with the usual antique bric-a-brac, and, while Neeson gives good sage, he's rivaling Morgan Freeman for the title of most obligatory modern prophet. Even the animated stories within the larger narrative are familiar, illustrated in a paintbrush style that contrasts against the live-action procedural in a canned real/imagined binary, reflecting one of the strangest new trends in the modern children's film, which is to limit the most striking visuals to the role of fleeting grace notes.
In other words, A Monster Calls is both governed and straitjacketed by Bayona's competent impersonality, which values performances that hit their beats and images that are crafted with just the right amount of empty polish, using pain as fodder for faux-art-film prettiness. There's something accumulatively gross about this film's lifelessness, as it reaffirms the self-absorption of the classic hero's quest, defining all the characters through the prism of Conor's pain. Weaver remarkably manages to suggest fleeting moments of independent humanity, but Jones fashions a martyr who exists solely to die for the shrill Conor's eventual maturity—a sacrifice that the boy doesn't begin to justify. Before taking on the existential matters of life and death, one of these tykes should first address a more useful and casual yet far less examined truth: that they aren't the center of the world.