'I think the themes of bullying, divorce, self blame, rage all belong to kids and they want to know about it,' says director J.A. Bayona. 'And we need to brave enough to tell them about it.'

By Nicole Sperling
Updated October 28, 2016 at 01:13 PM EDT
Travis Topa for Focus Features
  • Movie

After making the soulful horror film The Orphanage and the frenetic disaster film The Impossible, Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona chose to turn his attention to the difficult-to-define A Monster Calls. Based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Patrick Ness (from a story originated by Sibhan Dowd), the film centers on a 12-year old Conor, a rage-filled pre-teen (Pan’s Lewis MacDougall) who is grappling with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness, schoolyard bullies and a withholding grandmother, played by Sigourney Weaver. His ultimate salvation is found through a terrifying monster (Liam Neeson) that lives outside his bedroom window, takes the shape of a tree and tells him stories that give meaning to all his difficult emotions. Think Pan’s Labyrinth meets The Neverending Story.

“This story doesn’t deal with cancer and bullies in a sentimental way,” says Bayona. “It deals more with rage and self-blame. It’s not an easy movie.”

But it’s an important one, not to mention emotional and beautiful. Through the tree’s tales, which progress from 2D animation to 3D as they become more lifelike, Conor gains access to his emotional reality. But getting that right tonally was a tightrope walk far more precarious than anything Bayona had previously attempted.

“Cancer and bullying are such big themes they can handle a film all on their own,” says Bayona. “You need to be careful. It’s strong material. Ultimately the message of this film is more about how we cope with the truth. It’s tricky and it’s something I’ve never experienced before. In the edit room, if we changed one single piece of the scene, the whole movie would change.”

For more from our Holiday Movie Preview, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

But Bayona stuck to the idea that initially sparked with Dowd, who died of cancer after beginning her novel, that children need a story to help them access the complicated feelings they experience in the face of adversity.

“Somehow Siobhan was smart enough and brave enough to tell kids about things that they need to understand as much as adults needs to understand,” says Bayona. “I think the themes of bullying, divorce, self blame, rage all belong to kids and they want to know about it. And we need to brave enough to tell them about it.”

A Monster Calls opens on Dec. 23. See a new exclusive photo from the film below.

Travis Topa for Focus Features

A Monster Calls

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 108 minutes
  • J.A. Bayona