| A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mother’s terminal illness.
A film that plays out as a fantasy-drama, a coming-of-age tale and a family melodrama, ‘A Monster Calls’ opened as any typical coming-of-age drama does; introductions to the characters were made and we were given a brief glimpse into their daily lives, however as it progresses, we are suddenly faced with a complex and emotionally-stirring plot that piles on layers of heartfelt drama, some intriguing character development and gorgeous CGI and cinematography that accompany the tale of a young boy who evades his complicated daily life by escaping to a world of fantasy tales told by the titular monster, voiced by Liam Neeson.
The story itself has a fable-like quality that soothes the soul with lessons that, to this day remain frightfully undervalued. Lewis MacDougall’s instincts are absolutely at one with the story, he finds the perfect moments to reveal Conor’s inner-life and seems to have internalized what his mother says about what makes his drawings more real; “It’s all in the eyes.” Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver also all find their footing in their performances. What we get at the end is a symphony of feeling, which director J.A. Bayona is a master in.
“But what is a dream, Conor O’Malley? Who is to say that it is not everything else that is the dream?”
Spanish Director J.A. Bayona, who also helmed “The Impossible” and the superior horror film, “The Orphanage,” once again shows a deep understanding of the material he’s been charged with filming, especially with regards to the complexity of Conor’s situation. He doesn’t simplify things in order to make it easier for the audience to digest. Bayona knows Conor’s burdens are common to everyone at one point or another and because he sees them as something true and universal, he doesn’t cut corners or resort to contrived narrative devices just to get through them. Instead, he lets each scene play out naturally without rushing through it.
Technically, the film soars. From Oscar Faura’s stunning photography to Fernando Velazquez’s haunting music score, the film looks death squarely in the face and celebrates life. Seamlessly edited by Benat Vilplana and Jaume Marti, A Monster Calls uses its sumptuous visuals to its advantage. With swirls of bright watercolor washes adding a vibrancy to the film’s story-within- a story format, the film efficiently contrasts the real from the unreal.
The lapses in immersion and writing quality came in with the cliché bullies that torment Conor at school. There are three of them, they have a ‘leader bully’ and that specific bully eventually gets a form of comeuppance- it sounds even less original when I describe it. These bullies have no real motivation to consistently distress Conor whatsoever, and whilst the revealed reason Conor puts up with their teasing is somehow moving, the actual point of the bullies simply felt like a plot mechanic, rather than fully fleshed out characters making a meaningful appearance. Then we are introduced to the father, a character completely irrelevant to the story. I haven’t read the graphic novel the film is based on, so I can not say what his purpose was supposed to be, none of that comes through in the film. The father walks in and out, amounting to nothing.
“A Monster Calls” may come up a bit short for me in the writing department, but J.A. Bayona and co. more than make up for it by simply bringing this challenging premise to life in the first place. A complicated story that weaves the structural conventions of a coming-of-age tale together with the more abstract conceptual stylings of a Brothers Grimm tale.
‘A Monster Calls’ gets a 7.6/10.
Shot on 35's Rating Sheet: 9.5 – 10.0: Excellent! 8.5 – 9.5: Fantastic, but with minor flaws 7.5 – 8.5: Great, but with issues 6.5 – 7.5: Okay, but with major issues 5.5 – 6.5: Had potential, but falls flat hard. 4.5 – 5.5: Disaster!