(CNN)"A Monster Calls" joins a rich trove of movies in which children process real-life ordeals by escaping into elaborate fantasies, which doesn't make director J.A. Bayona's film any less beautiful or haunting.
'A Monster Calls' beautifully realizes boy's tale of grief, fantasy
The movie's closest spiritual kin would be "Pan's Labyrinth," Guillermo del Toro's splendid 2006 drama, which is high praise indeed. And while the tone is a delicate balancing act, Bayona ("The Impossible") has managed to connect on levels that elude so many projects in this vein, being genuinely emotional without becoming too maudlin.
It's a story, we're told at the outset, of "a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man" -- but one who is going to have to grow up fast, nevertheless.
The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Conor (played, in an astonishing performance, by Lewis MacDougall), a 12-year-old boy who, to say the least, has issues. Not only is young Conor bullied at school, but he's experiencing terrible nightmares; his single mother (Felicity Jones, far from "Rogue One" mode) is gravely ill; and he dreads the prospect of being forced to go live with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
Enter the Monster, a towering, wall-rattling creature who appears to Conor, bursting from the ground and standing several stories high. Growling and threatening (Liam Neeson brilliantly provides the voice and performance-capture movements), he promises to tell the boy three stories, at which point Conor will be expected to respond with one of his own -- one imbued with his "truth," whatever that might entail.
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his award-winning book, "A Monster Calls" gorgeously realizes its fantasy sequences through stylized animation, bringing childlike paintings and drawings to vivid life. The pain with which the boy is grappling grounds these more fanciful elements, so much so that it's something of a shock when Conor's dad (Toby Kebbell) appears and the kid actually cracks a smile.
Immersed in questions of grief and loss, this is movie about a child, but not necessarily for sensitive younger children; instead, the story utilizes Conor's plight to plumb how someone -- adult or child -- can tap into the reservoirs of strength required to endure life changes that can seem arbitrary and unfair.
As a consequence, "A Monster Calls" might be one of those movies that occupies its own kind of nether-realm commercially speaking -- one of those relatively small projects (the special effects really just service the story) that could struggle to attract serious adult audiences and prove too dark for a family crowd. It's the sort of marketing challenge, frankly, that has frequently flummoxed studios, yielding movies that wind up being more appreciated via rich afterlives playing on cable.
If so, that would be shame. Because with its striking imagery and depth of feeling, the movie's call is well worth answering.
"A Monster Calls" opens in limited release December 23 and wide on January 6. It's rated PG-13.