Like many children’s stories, A Monster Calls is about death. Think about that. For all the joy that often comes from films intended for children or a family audience, death is a key ingredient. That’s not necessarily bad, as death is a part of life, but interesting. Obviously some of these stories place death further in the background, but others embrace it as a crucial plot point. A Monster Calls deals with the concept head on through the workings of visual wonder and emotional performances.
Based on the acclaimed children’s novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the film’s script, A Monster Calls focuses on Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall). He’s a young boy attempting to deal with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones). One night a giant yew tree comes to life in the form of a monster voiced by Liam Neeson. It arrives at Conor’s window, grabs him and explains that it will tell him stories with the expectation that Conor tells a story of his own.
It would be hard not to recall films like Pan’s Labrynth, when thinking of this film’s story. Bringing in the fantasy world to help a child deal with an unhappy situation makes plenty of sense and allows for an excuse to see the imagination run wild. Fittingly enough, those two films share a producer (Belen Atienza). Additionally, Guillermo del Toro has certainly been an influence on director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible). For A Monster Calls, however, whether or not the monster is “real” to some degree, the film has its own ingenious way of bringing its fantasy to life.
Ness’ book features chapters devoted to the monster’s tales and the book has illustrations propagated throughout. For the film, the monster is seen in the real world pretty early on, but his tales come to life in their own fantastical way. Using a combination of 2D and 3D art that calls to mind the story of the Deathly Hallows in part 1 of the final Harry Potter film, we see stories told in a way that certainly captures the imagination. Helping more is the lack of this film’s reliance on these moments to really sell the story.
Eliminating these sequences still leaves the film with an emotional journey for Conor. He must deal with some relatable situations, such as an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), an absentee father (Toby Kebbell) and a school bully (James Melville). Through all this, young MacDougall does a terrific job of playing up different emotional states. He’s rightfully frustrated, sad, frightened and determined. Scenes with these various characters allow him to demonstrate what comes with knowing their mother is likely going to leave them at such a young age.
It is worth crediting the older actors as well. Weaver, in particular, gets some standout moments. She and MacDougall properly play up the disparity between the two, especially given the circumstances. Jones always does well to play a maternal figure with too few options left for how to care for her child. Additionally, while merely a vocal presence, having Neeson voice the monster allows the actor the chance to accept playing up a variety of his own emotions to convey this towering figure.
In thinking of the monster, the ease that comes with hearing Neeson’s familiar tones, regardless of whether or not the large creature is trying to be intimidating, it’s good to think of how the movie tackles that presence. Perhaps it is my own familiarity with the novel that made the film appear to move at a pretty fast pace (given the subject), but I appreciated the level of restraint and sensitivity at play. That may sound odd, given how A Monster Calls tells the story of terminal illness, a big tree monster and animated stories, but it does.
There are ways for films to manipulate the elements of a story to best bring out the intended emotions in its audience. One could argue Bayona struggled with this in The Impossible, despite that being a near impossible challenge to not turn that story into an emotional journey. The nature of film, in general, is supposed to challenge everyone’s emotions in some way, but there does seem to be a right way to do it. That’s what impresses me with A Monster Calls. There are some grand sequences rooted in visual effects, which certainly have an effect, but Bayona wisely knows how to deliver on smaller, quieter moments.
That is enough to be more than satisfied with what the film has to offer. To tell the story of Conor, who is “too old to be a kid” and “too young to be a man,” there is a required understanding of dealing with an event significant to one and expanding it for all to be engrossed by. Bayona accomplishes this. He successfully has MacDougall carry this story, while fitting the rest of the film with splendid visuals (both in the fantasy world and the drab real world) and everything else to pull it all together. A Monster Calls is indeed an affecting journey and fortunately a monster is there to help serve as a guide.