“The story begins....with a boy”
A Monster Calls is a drama with fantasy elements, directed by Spanish visionary filmmaker J.A. Bayona, and told through the eyes of Conor, a young boy played by Lewis MacDougall. Conor’s life isn’t the best, as his bed-ridden mother, played by Felicity Jones, has been fighting a long-term illness and the local school bullies aren’t making it any easier. To make things worse, his stuck-up grandmother, played by Sigourney Weaver, wants to move Conor out of his current home to stay with her due to his mother’s debilitating health. And so it’s understandable that Conor, sad and lonely, uses his imagination to call upon the titular Monster, who, unconventionally, starts telling Conor stories from its past.
As much can be inferred from the trailer that was released several months ago, but anyone who hasn’t seen the film or the trailer should know that A Monster Calls is not meant to be a horror movie, nor is it truly a monster movie. Director J.A. Bayona makes this clear throughout the film. Having previously helmed “The Impossible” and “The Orphanage”, films which have received consistently solid reviews, Bayona is one of those rare names that has yet to put a step wrong in the industry. Boasting the powerhouse talent of Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones as well as the easily recognizable voice of Liam Neeson as the Monster, the only blip on paper would be lead actor Lewis MacDougall, of Pan fame (or ‘infame’, you could say). Can he stand out among the talent, and can the film lead the new year off with a bang?
A Monster Calls is one of those movies you find so difficult to describe to an interested friend, yet it leaves you overwhelmed as you leave the theatre. In essence, the film explores a child’s innocence and immaturity, uncovering one of the saddest truths of life in a firm but still gut-wrenching way. And this is mainly due to Lewis MacDougall’s performance, which far outshines the stain left from the critical performance of Pan. It is through him that we experience the vulnerability, desperation and frustration of Conor. Also a highlight is Liam Neeson’s excellent voice acting, instiling a sense of sanctuary yet leaving no doubt of the darkness ahead as he talks to Conor about life and its many hidden lessons.
Visual, Emotional, and Profound
One of the big reasons the film works as a whole is J.A. Bayona’s direction style, which is highlighted by beautifully animated sequences peppered throughout the film, each making me excited to see the next. It’s through these sequences that we develop the Monster’s character and his past, all executed surprisingly well. Conor’s character arc is one that many audience members can relate to, and one that young children will definitely be affected by. So parents, be prepared to have talks with your children about the film’s main themes if you plan on bringing them to see it. Make no mistake, A Monster Calls can be a dark, sad film, and throughout the film’s runtime, many sniffles and nose-blows were heard in the audience at last October’s London premiere, But in the end, its message is one of hope and happiness even in the most difficult of times. The film makes this clear with a small island of happiness in the second act of the movie, as if asking us to put the darker moments on hold, even just for a few moments.
Stories are Wild Creatures?
A few really nitpicky issues with the film never derail its overwhelming positives. There was one scene in which it was clear that Lewis MacDougall didn’t fully commit himself to his actions, which is a shame because he was excellent in the rest of his scenes. But this is easily overlooked. Also something that took my attention away for a moment was the actual climax of the film, where some lines were straddling the boundary between being profound and being cheesy, and thus didn’t quite deliver the emotional sucker punch that may have put this film into awards consideration. That said, the ending does include the emotional punch desired, and I am happy to report that the film does stick its landing in a way that is unavoidably satisfactory.
Chances are that A Monster Calls may be overlooked by a large proportion of the public due to its dark themes driving away younger children and its lack of blockbuster gloss to attract the working-class age groups. But people who do give this film a chance will find that they will get their money’s worth, and that Patrick Ness’ book adaptation translates surprisingly well to film (according to many audience accounts). A hope is that sufficient marketing and positive word-of-mouth will bring numbers in for the studio, as a flag to encourage the production more films like this, in an era where support for original film premises are still relatively low.
Overall Rating: 8.0/10