A Monster Calls - Review: A Wild and Wondrous Thing
Maybe I missed the boat on this one but I don’t completely get emojis (or why they need their own film). People like them, that’s cool, be happy and emoj away but it feels they’ve reached the same stage of hashtags with people using them just for the sake of using them. Or worst: still attempting to use them in a vast pictographic sentence that they’ll spend the next six messages trying to explain. I don’t always see the need for little yellow faces but I get that some things take more than words to explain. Sometimes it’s helpful or even essential to have another way of expressing yourself whether it’s complex or just things you’re struggling to understand. Sometimes you just need your own way of saying or dealing with things. That’s certainly what A Monster Calls is trying to say as a boy finds a very big way of coming to terms with his problems..... and it is absolutely stunning/”shocked face, happy face, crying face”!
The 13-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall – Pan) is struggling to deal with his mother’s terminal illness and his bullying at school. One night he’s visited by a giant tree monster (Liam Neeson – Chronicles of Narnia) that begins to tell him stories before making Conor face his nightmare.
Although the story veers into his own directions, the idea for Patrick Ness’s children’s source novel came from fellow writer Siobhan Dowd as she was facing (and losing) her own battle with cancer. Its purpose is to be a piece of fantasy expressionism showing a child dealing with emotions they don’t entirely understand and the biggest thing its film incarnation gets right is how brutal and honest it delivers that message. A Monster Calls carries a 12a/PG-13 rating for a reason because it has not remotely been made light or whimsical for a younger audience appeal. I’d emphatically advise prior viewing before considering showing it to anyone of a single digit age. Even as a fully matured, partially dead inside adult, I found this to be an utter tear-jerker, requiring active resistance to hold back those flood gates. It is a powerful emotional story but my God is it magnificent to watch!
Director J. A. Bayona (The Impossible) wonderfully blurs the lines between fantasy and reality over whether or events are happening within Conor’s dreams. Then we have the more unorthodox natures of the stories themselves, almost entirely designed to be nonsensical or only vaguely relevant to Conor as he hears them. After the first story, he’s even left clueless over who the real heroes and villains of it were. It serves to mirror his real life frustration over things not making sense to him, like his mothers condition or how others are treating him. Yet, utilizing the strength of the source material, there is ultimately clarity and sense to the journey following the spectacular scenes of Conor finally telling his truth to the monster. Everything is related and kept within Conor’s perspective and the ending is overwhelmingly touching.
The visual styles and presentation of the film are another monster success story. The titular figure himself a creature representing the nearby ancient Yew is a merging of Groot and Giant Man for a figure that can look equally comforting and menacing when required. At $43 million, this is a limited budget film (about 1/3 of Monster Trucks) for its effects requirements but the CG constantly looks oustanding as the monster peers into shot with branches weaving around room interiors. The film also uses more traditionally-looking animated approach to tell its smaller stories like Hellboy 2 telling of its Golden Army or Potter recalling the Deathly Hallows. The results are just as effective and are particularly imaginative in their image transitions and presentation as water colour painting imagery. The real world visuals serve as an ideal contrast in restricted colour pallets like the grey school exteriors or green and browns of grandmother’s house (Sigourney Weaver – the queen of Sci-Fi). They also utilize different camera angles to envision Conor’s self-projected isolation from off the shoulder 3rd person views in corridors or vertical exterior shots of Conor standing still while the rest of a crowd moves.
The film’s success is pivotal around the performance of its young star but thankfully, young Lewis MacDougall absolutely brings the house down. He feels reminiscent of a similarly aged Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland in both rage and remorse. The adult cast members are on fine form too. Right from the start Felicity Jones (Rogue One) looks borderline skeletal and gives her role emotional progression from early days finding optimism with Conor changing severities of accepting defeat. Weaver too manages to convince both in stern beginnings and softened endings. Toby Kebbell (Ben-Hur) as the caring but absent father is the only one that feels occasionally out of place. As for Liam Neeson on voice and mo-cap duties, he may not throat punch anyone this time but his smooth-to=course tones embody the monster with vastly more character.
I really don’t have anything significant to fault this film with other than warning that its appeal will not be universal. A Monster Calls is ultimately a very uplifting film but not before driving you down first. If you’re not in a mood to handle significant levels of sadness, then save it for another time. Those who have gone through similar times of personal loss may also find some parts difficult going but they will also find comfort in the handling of the subject matter. A Monster Calls is a very grown up child’s story that will twist your face until your tear ducts break but leave you in a state of awe, enthrallment and disbelief over its accomplishments.