Movie Review: "A Monster Calls" (2016)

Updated on January 18, 2017

This J.A. Bayona film is the first movie I personally saw in theatres for 2017, and holy cow it was one hell of way to start! Blissfully, I knew next to nothing about it going in, and expected a kid and monster bonding tale in a similar vein as The Iron Giant, or more recently, The BFG, which was obviously going to be somewhat touching. I was wholly unprepared for the emotional annihilation that ensued.

For those who haven't seen the film yet, rest assured that this review is spoiler-free until the clearly-indicated SPOILER section below. However my advice is that you immediately cease reading and go see this movie, just make sure you come back to finish this though. Oh, bring tissue. Lots and lots of tissue. And just when you think you've brought enough, bring some more.

The story revolves around a boy named Conor, who just may be the unluckiest kid on earth. His mother was diagnosed with an incurable disease, he had to live with his stern and unlikable grandmother who wouldn't allow him to touch anything (every young boy's nightmare), and just for good measure, he also had to deal with bullies at school.

Imagination (or is it?) came to the rescue. One night, a thousand-year-old yew tree came to life in the form of a monster, literally crashed his room and informed him that he will be further visited, during which the monster will tell him three stories. After that, Conor will tell the monster a fourth one, and it will be the truth, the truth of his nightmare.

Having never read the novel, the premise alone instantly hooked me, and never let go. This isn't the first movie about a child coping with real life hardships with ambiguously fantastical characters, Pan's Labyrinth did all that and it was amazing. I have no doubt there would have been a DC/Marvel-ish online rivalry between fans of these two movies, if this were a perfect world where they actually had fans (box office so far is depressing).

Liam Neeson as the tree monster and Sigourney Weaver as Grandma have to some of the smartest casting choices ever, because they can both be scary and menacing, but also gentle and kind. This movie requires them to pull off both extremities, and pulled it off they did.

Felicity Jones gave another great performance as Mum. There's no stopping her these days. This was, in fact, the third movie starring her that I'd seen in three months (after Inferno and Rogue One). I swear I'm not doing this on purpose.

But the biggest round of applause goes to child actor Lewis MacDougall, carrying the movie as much as Conor was carrying the burden of his reality. Considering the entire story revolves around Conor (notice how other characters are simply called Mum, Dad, Grandma?), not to mention about half of the plot takes place in his own head, it's safe to assume that the movie places a significant amount of reliance upon this single piece of child acting. A risky move, if his acting was even just okay, the movie likely will collapse by failing to deliver its emotional punches.

Well supposedly the end product brought out a few man tears out of Liam Neeson, so I'd say job well done.

If I have to summarize this movie in one word, it would be beautiful....and sad. Okay that's probably two words. But who's counting?

The first two stories told by the tree monster are displayed through breathtaking watercolor animation; the monster and special effects, when they occur, gave the impression of belonging to a larger-budgeted project; also an amazingly empathic soundtrack from Fernando Velázquez certainly helps.

There are criticisms about the movie being overtly straightforward, in other words not subtle enough, in delivering its message. While I most certainly agree, I don't see that as much of a problem. After all, the story is about a very young kid, who's only just beginning to comprehend the idea of the world not being strictly black and white. Another merit is that as sad and tear-inducing as the movie is, it's still a suitable family picture. Children above the age of 10 will comprehend and appreciate the message, and should be above looking for Rocket Raccoon.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! Skip to FINAL VERDICT if you haven't seen the movie

Moments.

Depending on their quality, the moments you take away could define, elevate or totally sink your memory, hence overall experience, of the movie. A Monster Calls was masterful at creating such great moments, certainly helped by its clever premise, which set up the upcoming moments right away. Three stories, and then...the truth.

Here's one quick example, after the second story where Conor hectically destroys the parson's house with the monster, we abruptly cut to reality where we realized, in sheer horror, that he just trashed his grandmother's most treasured furniture. And Grandma just came home.

I was terrified, similar to how I felt the first time watching Whiplash. I could tell, though, that I wasn't the only one. The scene lasted for about a minute which felt like a year, where not even the sound of breathing could be detected in the whole theatre I was in (about 1/3 full but everyone's seated around the same area). I firmly believe that the whole threatre just collectively lost our sh** and forgot to breathe for a whole minute.

If there's any complaints I have for A Monster Calls, it's the nagging feeling that the bully sub-plot and third story is less relevant compared with the first two. It's still interesting scenario though. If Conor is the one who put the bully to the hospital when he was already walking away, wouldn't that make Conor the actual bully? The ruthless blending between right and wrong is clever, but nothing we haven't seen up to this point. Probably why this part was on the shorter side.

Another part, on which I am probably dead wrong, is the ending sequence. Personally, I would end the movie when the mother passed, at 12:07, with the tree saying "finally let her go", and the screen fading to black. That's where the emotion ran at its absolute height, and I have a feeling that if the ending title appeared right after this point, all sentimental outbursts suppressed up to this point would be given a chance to run free. Instead, because there WAS another following sequence, we had to suppress them yet again to see what it's all about.

And yes, the ending sequence showed up the origin of Conor's imagination, but I would argue it could have worked to feature the artbook during the end credits. It's not like people leave when credits start rolling anymore (thanks to Marvel). Maybe they were concerned that it would prove too vague for general audience, but hey, that's what internet is for, isn't it?

FINAL VERDICT

Though I've only seen it once, I have no doubt that A Monster Calls is the kind of movie that will forever be branded in my brain. If this beautiful story was told a few centuries ago, it would likely have taken its place amongst the best from Hans Christian Andersen's and Grimm's fairy tales, with a Disney animation in the 50s, a lackluster direct-to-DVD sequel circa 2002, and a live-action remake targeting summer 2018.

What I'm struggling to say is, this is a modern day dark fantasy classic. Highly recommended. Not that I believe in ratings, but if I did, I would've given it a 9/10.

5 stars for A Monster Calls (2016)

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