Though A Monster Calls is about a child and a talking tree, it’s more layered, emotional, and powerful than most movies starring adults. The film is a tale of loss, filled with life lessons anyone, children included, will find challenging and heartbreaking.
Based on the book by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), A Monster Calls follows a boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. To cope, he isolates himself from the world, drawing in his notepads, until one day a tree monster with the voice of Liam Neeson visits him. The monster promises he’ll tell Conor three stories and after that, Conor will tell him a story. And that’s when all will be revealed.
Those stories not only give the movie a simple structure, they’re told with gorgeous animation, each a metaphor for some of life’s more complex lessons. Lessons that illustrate how most things aren’t always cut and dry, black and right, right and wrong. Sometimes it’s ok to be in the middle, think one thing and do another, and through these lessons the audience learns both Conor’s truth and, hopefully, the truth about themselves.
The film was directed by J.A. Bayona, the talented visual filmmaker behind The Orphanage, The Impossible and the upcoming Jurassic World 2. His visuals are constantly dynamic, and coupled with some slick, seamless transitions, give the film a truly ethereal feel. There’s a line in A Monster Calls about how we sometimes can’t tell the difference between a dream and reality, and Bayona’s filmmaking takes its cue from that.
As a result, there are moments when the film can feel a bit gruelling. It’s a steadfast film, one that rarely turns up the volume too much. So that pace, coupled with the profound thoughts it’s conveying, mean A Monster Calls can drag at times. Things never stay that way, though, and all the pieces come together for an emotional, beautiful final act.
As Conor, MacDougall is remarkable. He gives one of those rare child performances where ever time he’s on screen you see a million things on his face all at once. He’s tired, sad, angry and confused, all at the same time, all the time. Sigourney Weaver, as Conor’s grandmother, gives an equally measured performance. As the parents, Toby Kebbell and Jones have a little less to do, but you understand and care for them nonetheless.
Then there’s the Monster itself. Yes, he looks like a taller, smarter Groot, but once the face gets closer to the camera, the visual effects all but melt away and all you can see is the character. It’s a beautiful achievement mixed into an otherwise grounded, timeless feeling movie.
And yes, there will be tears in the final few scenes of A Monster Calls. It would be hard not to, as Bayona’s camera, mixed with Ness’ words, has been prepping you for those final moments since the very first ones.
That’s kind of the movie as a whole, too. From the very beginning, A Monster Calls sets out to make you feel and think a very specific way. It achieves that goal, but because it happens a bit slower than you may expect, the impact may not land as strong as it wants. Nevertheless, the metaphors and intentions below the surface are really the most rewarding take away from the film.
A Monster Calls played at Fantastic Fest 2016 and will open December 23 everywhere.