Anybody got a tissue?
A Monster Calls is a movie adapted from an award winning novel by Patrick Ness, who also was a screenwriter for this film. The novel is a children’s book, but this film really tackles some big time themes that would raise many questions for young kids and would be a difficult viewing for older kids.
In fact, A Monster Calls just destroyed me. I sobbed through the second and third act of this film. There have been few films that have touched me, grabbing my insides and ripping them apart like A Monster Calls. I was very emotional in Room with Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson and when Bing Bong “died” in Inside Out. This was like that.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a twelve year old boy dealing with the illness of his Mum (Felicity Jones). In order to face the pain in his life, Conor imagines a giant tree Monster (Liam Neeson) who comes to see Conor and tell him stories that are meant to teach the boy lessons about life.
However, these stories are not designed to ease Conor’s pain and they are more confusing to the boy than helpful. Of course, these stories are allegories that directly deal with the situations that Conor is facing with his mum and his detached grandma (Sigourney Weaver)
The movie is focused completely in the point of view of Conor and, because of that, the performance of young Lewis MacDougall is vital to the film. He just knocks it out of the park with his painful and poignant role as Conor. You feel for this boy because he is dealing with a situation that many of us have had to deal with in our lives and having to deal with it at such a young age has to be all the more scarring.
The film is beautifully shot and animated. The section when the Monster is telling Conor the stories appears almost in a watercolor animation and those scenes are astonishingly beautiful. The Monster is masterfully created as well. The only drawback to the design of this character is the Monster looks very much like Groot from the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Monster had that same look in the novel as well and it is difficult to believe that Groot (or perhaps Treebeard and the Ents from the Lord of the Rings trilogy) are not a heavy inspiration for the Monster. I would have liked a little difference in the physical look, but, of course, they are both trees.
Director J.A. Bayona tells this story in a masterful manner, weaving the stories, much like fairy tales, told by the Monster into Conor’s life and handling complex storytelling of the human characters as well. Bayona, who also directed The Impossible with Tom Holland, seems to have a knack of telling the story from the POV of the young children and really wrenching the emotion from these actors.
A Monster Calls dives deeply into seriously dark and tormented themes that could make this too much of a downer for some people. However, if you simply look at it in that manner, you miss the real truth of the film. It is showing that it is okay to deal with grief in whatever manner you can, even if that means letting out the monster within.
I also have to talk about Sigourney Weaver who, as the apparently cold Grandma, takes a role that could have been cliched and typical and delivers a wonderful performance. We see the levels of this woman and her own pain at the thought of losing her daughter and her uncertainty of how she can deal with the grandson that she struggled to connect with. Just when you think Weaver’s character is going one way, she takes a turn and rewards you with a subtle characterization for a complex person. She does a fantastic job in A Monster Calls.
That is not to say that Felicity Jones was not great as well. She was amazing as the cancer-stricken mother who was trying every treatment imaginable to keep fighting so she could be with her son.
This is a beautiful story and film, rendered with a visual brilliance by the animators, by the CGI and by the director, and is packed full of amazing acting, in particular, by the young Lewis MacDougall. The boy and his depth earned my tears, and, man, did he get them.
This is a painful film and is not a family-friendly film, but I would say that it is an important film for families to watch together. Just be prepared to have a deep discussion afterwards. That would be a real benefit of A Monster Calls.