A Monster Calls
Out Now On-Demand
The director of The Impossible and The Orphanage adapts the award-winning children’s fantasy novel about a bullied boy with an ill mother whose problems are put into order by a giant tree monster. Stars Academy Award nominees Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything).
- Patrick Ness (based on his own novel)
Rating: PG Violence & scary scenes
I remember being a kid and wanting a giant creature to help me out during difficult times. I suspect it’s a common fantasy, with films like Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are tapping into the active imaginations of children. But what if you’re moving from childhood to adolescence? And what if your struggles aren’t as simple as good triumphing over evil? A Monster Calls explores the darkest of grey areas experienced at a tender age, creating a cinematic masterwork in visualised empathy.
The cinematography alone gives plenty for the eyes to devour on the big screen; a simple fade from pencil to sharpener looks soothing and hypnotic. The visual work on The Monster also impresses, effortlessly moving between realism and caricature, as do the tales he tells, separate sequences gorgeously animated in 2D-ish watercolour. Even the sound design, especially the snapping and cracking of gigantic roots, demand cinema speakers.
At the heart of the performances is Lewis MacDougall, an incredible young actor whose portrayal of the tragedy-struck Conor will tear through almost anyone. Oscar nominee Felicity Jones is as great as she’s ever been as Conor’s mother, aided by some ultra-convincing makeup when her health deteriorates. Of course, Liam Neeson’s voice is as suited to The Monster as Morgan Freeman’s is to wildlife documentaries.
Filling out the side-roles nicely are Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother and Toby Kebbell as his distant father. They seem like irritating deadbeats at first until the film moulds them into genuine, grounded characters.
With A Monster Calls, director JA Bayona has made a painful transition as comforting as possible. By adding pins to the cushion of traditional children’s fantasy fable, the story prepares the innocent for the daggers of the real world. It is, in some way, the last fairy tale a child needs.
New York Times
Los Angeles Times
Sydney Morning Herald
a gut-wrenching tale about death and grieving
Don’t be fooled: it may be labelled a fantasy but the content of A Monster Calls (2016) is brutally realistic. And ignore the trailer: it does not come remotely close to describing a story of the horrors inside a young boy’s mind as he helplessly watches his mother deal with terminal illness. Too bleak for young audiences and mislabelled for those older, it is one of the most gut-wrenching films this writer has seen in a long while.
There are two closely interwoven storylines at play: one is a magical fantasy, the other a tragic drama. Thirteen-year old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is withdrawn and bullied at school as he experiences raging frustration over his mother’s (Felicity Jones) worsening illness. Each time the hospital unsuccessfully tries a new treatment his hopes are dashed. He has fits of destruction and is desperate to understand what the grown-ups are keeping from him. He hates living with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his remarried father (Toby Kebbell) leaves him feeling even more abandoned. Nothing can break Conor’s cycle of despair and time is running out. Drawing deep from his young sub-conscious memory, he reconstructs a monster story told long ago by his mother, one that empowers his desperate search for a happy ending. Her long-forgotten painting of a magic yew tree like the one outside his bedroom becomes his psychological crutch and he fantasises it as a powerful magical sage that can cure her illness. The tree comes to life with destructive menace to others but kindness towards Conor as it tries to teach acceptance of things that cannot be changed.
The brilliance of this film lies in the way that story unfolds not just from Conor’s point of view but from deep inside his turbulent mind. Conventional cinematography and narrative structures position us where the director wants us, but this film goes much further. Through the sincerity and emotive power of the amazing young Lewis MacDougall, we viscerally feel what he is feeling. While we see magical happenings on screen, the role of monster and magic in this narrative is entirely cathartic. Some viewers may need a degree of forgiveness for the unimaginative CGI tree monster and its magical doings. The sinewy hyper-masculine beast with flashing lights from every crevice might startle ten-year olds but it is a tame cliché for older viewers. Some of its dialogue sounds preachy like “heroes don’t always win” and its make-believe destructiveness can be repetitive. But these are minor distractions compared to the emotional punch this film can deliver.
Conversations about death and grief are difficult at any age. From the outset, the film’s narrator explains that Conor is somewhere between boy and man. By the end of his sad journey, he has grown emotionally and learnt about letting go. Much more than just entertainment, this sensitive coming of age tale is an honest conversation about some of the most complex feelings a human can ever experience.
Nice, but no great shakes, family film
Whilst I went in wanting to fall head over heels for The Impossible and The Orphanage director J.A. Bayona’s latest, I was left disappointed. Nicely acted, directed and shot, and a pleasant family film (I watched with mine), it fails to reach the heights of more ambitious fantasies, such as, say, Pan’s Labyrinth or the recent Okja.
Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson (voicing the titular monster), and especially young Lewis MacDougall (as Conor, a kid with a terminally ill mother, and a highly active imagination) are all superb in their roles.
Opinion’s subjective, but for me at least, this was pretty underwhelming and unambitious storytelling. Patrick Ness, author of the novel on which it’s based, penned the screenplay, so perhaps the issue’s one of being too close to the book, rather than wholly embracing the visual storytelling of cinema.
Still, those less cynical and hard-hearted will appreciate its undoubted fairy tale warmth, but this monster gets a “meh” from me.