A Monster Calls
Dir.: J.A. Bayona
A Monster Calls is not quite a young adult fantasy film, and it is not quite a mature drama, but it fits somewhere in between. A coming of age tale, this film blends magical realism with a more grounded tale of grief and loss that often goes unobserved and ignored in other films of its kind. This film tells the story of young Conor O’Malley, an artistic young boy whose mother suffers from cancer. Relentlessly bullied and having a tough time coping with his mother’s increasingly dire physical state, he soon meets a monster who takes the form of a giant talking tree. The tree comes to Conor in the night and promises to tell him three stories, in exchange for Conor telling the monster the fourth story, which must carry Conor’s ultimate truth. Along the way, he must also spend time with his grandmother and his father, and in turn, the viewer learns more about the rest of his family, and how each character in his or her own way must learn to accept the reality of the situation they all find themselves in.
This film has a profound message that all children should learn at some point: grief and loss are a natural, though un-enjoyable part of life, and though men and women tell themselves comforting lies to hide painful truths relating to death, everyone must learn to accept the things that they cannot control. There have been many animated films and live action family films that have dealt with the subject of death as a plot point, but in this film, Conor’s mother’s encroaching demise serves to highlight this key theme. The film’s main focus lies in Conor and his relatives’ reactions to the progression of her illness, and though the film often gets heavy and emotional, its use of the monster and his storytelling prowess helps provide some much-needed therapy for both Conor and the viewer. Whereas this heaviness could often feel overtly dark or grim, this film’s sincerity in relaying these scenes of heartache, combined with Conor’s imaginative and artistic scenes, where he draws colorful creatures and scenery, helps to convey a sense of hopeful wonder rather than nihilistic despair. Patrick Ness, the writer of the book that this film is based on, also wrote the screenplay, and it turns out that this transition from book to screen, under Bayona’s direction, feels pretty much seamless.
From a technical standpoint, the film is beautiful to look at, and the cinematography and special effects both provide compelling spectacle for a film that never feels like a blockbuster. Both the monster’s visual effects and the resulting effects due to surreal sequences related to the character all feel profound and meaningful. There are a few animated watercolor sequences that occur when the monster tells his stories that provide added visual beauty, but also nuanced tales of moral grayness that feel like fairy tales until the monster provides alternate takes on the narrative. Additionally, the score is beautiful and affecting, and the music choices never feel overbearing or annoying, like a lot of films of these genres tend to over-provide. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film intentionally leave out music entirely, which is a technique I love in filmmaking: it provides a dichotomy that increases the visual impact of the storytelling. J.A. Bayona has not directed too many films yet, but using these visual and audio techniques in just his third full-length feature film, I have higher hopes for him directing the Jurassic World sequel than I previously did.
Led by young newcomer Lewis MacDougall, the cast all deliver powerful performances. MacDougall conjures genuine sadness, tiredness, grief and pain, and remains sympathetic throughout the film, never feeling obligatorily whiney or forced like so many child actors seem to succumb to these days. Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver provide intimate portrayals of two very different women with very different personalities that still love each other and both affect Conor’s life tremendously. Toby Kebbell is not in the film too much, but his performance as the distant father also feels convincing and empathetic. Lastly, Liam Neeson nails yet another voice acting role as the monster, and I appreciated the fact that he did not phone it in or provide an Aslan-knock-off performance. The performances in this film are highly integral to the plot due to the nature of each characters’ grief, and without a cast that nailed every single performance, the film would not feel as powerful as it does. Luckily, from an acting standpoint, each character is performed admirably, and the different actors all knock it out of the park.
While the message that “most people are not good or evil, but somewhere in between” may fly over most children’s heads, it’s a nice moral acknowledgement for the more mature crowd. The monster itself helps provide this moral grayness: though he looks visually intimidating and serves as a destructive force, he shows simultaneous acts of tenderness and nurturing. As such, this is a great film for children to watch in order to understand these kinds of more complex messages that they cannot receive in standard Disney fare. I believe that A Monster Calls is a film that every child should see, at least once they reach an age where they can understand the implications of death and loss. This film is perfect for the child who, for example, may have just gotten to the later Harry Potter books, or maybe a child old enough to read and comprehend The Hunger Games series. While A Monster Calls teaches a valuable lesson to children, its themes still work to provide a good cinematic experience for adults as well. I do not normally cry when I watch films, as I have seen so many that it takes a lot for me to have emotional reactions to them, but I can say without a doubt that I cried for pretty much the whole last thirty minutes of this film. I held it back as long as I could, but due to the emotional weight that the film presses onto the viewer, Bayona has effectively crafted a film that sufficiently emulates the grief of the story in a real, tangible format.
J.A. Bayona has crafted potentially his finest film yet, and A Monster Calls feels destined to become a cult classic fantasy film. I am writing this review on a Monday, and looking at the box office numbers, I’m sad to say that the film itself will most likely struggle to turn a profit unless foreign markets carry it, but I will not bore you with the exact numbers in this review. This is a shame, because this film really works in executing the proper thought processes of grief, loss, and learning to let go of the ones you love when they are destined to pass on. For those who care about the cinematic art form and those who love a good story that carries its theme on its shoulders with Atlas strength, I highly recommend this film. There’s not much to dislike about it. Just make sure to either bring tissues or wear a comfy shirt to dry your eyes whenever, wherever you see it.