In J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, the director mixes the hyper-reality of the agonizing struggles of a young boy named Conor O’Malley with a vibrant fantasy world involving a titanic tree monster. Like in Bayona’s previous feature El Orfanato (The Orphanage), reality and fantasy are blended together in fascinating ways, until it is not quite clear precisely what we are looking at. Though certainly a daunting task, Bayona and his performers manage to tell an engaging coming-of-age story about grief, coping, and the power of storytelling.
A Monster Calls details a short time in the life of young Conor O’Malley. He has problems, including trouble with his single-parent mother, his overly-stern grandmother, and a troop of bullies at school. One night, Conor is startled when a large Yew tree at the top of a hill comes to life and pulls him from his room. The Monster explains that he will visit Conor four times. The first three times, he will tell Conor a story, and on the final visit, Conor will tell his own story to the Monster, revealing Conor’s truth. The remainder of the story reveals more about Conor’s struggles, and is punctuated by fantastical visits from the Monster.
This episodic feel lends the film a deliberate pacing. The structure of the story generates a kind of forward momentum on account of the Monster always calling at a particular time. This also creates tension, as the audience realizes that the monster is due to show up for another of his stories. As we learn more and more about Conor’s life, we re-interpret the Monster’s stories in new ways and notice various attempts at foreshadowing for the main narrative. It’s altogether great storytelling, and keeps the spectator engaged.
This is a film with few characters, so it is important that they all hit their marks. The film involves only Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), his mother (Felicity Jones), grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and the Monster (Liam Neeson). There is a short sequence in the middle of the film where Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) enters the fray as well, but his character is less crucial. Jones is pitch-perfect as Conor’s mother, at once tender and sad, and the majority of her performance is in her eyes and her face, not in longwinded dialogue. Weaver balances her stern stuffiness and vulnerability quite well, and though I have heard some take issue with her accent, it never bothered me. Finally, Liam Neeson’s voice-acting as the monster is quite strong.
But Lewis MacDougall is on another level as Conor. The character is quite self-sufficient and puts up a good fight, but he gets bullied all the time and is dealing with some heavy stuff. This manifests itself in the real world as violent outbursts in various settings, and though these are understandable, it is clear that they are not healthy. Conor is artistic, a trait he shares with his mom, and something that informs other qualities of the film, like the aesthetic of The Monster’s stories. MacDougall’s performance helps the audience transition from the real world to the fantasy world of the monster and the stories with ease. The young actor is quite capable of the heavier thematic elements as well.
As for The Monster’s stories, they take the form of dark fairy tales with strange twists and uniqueness. These are not re-hashes of The Brothers Grimm stories, and as far as I can tell they are original to the adapted screenplay by Patrick Ness (and, obviously, his novel as well). In a surprising turn, they are also animated in a gorgeous watercolor-like style that is breathtaking, and provides contrast to the dourness of the rest of the film (it is all pretty grey and monochromatic, save for the animated scenes). I was lukewarm on the film through the first fifteen minutes or so, but five seconds into the first animated fairy tale from The Monster, I was smitten.
As becomes clear through the first act, A Monster Calls deals with some incredibly weighty themes, and does so impressively. The struggle of handling a loved-one’s illness, and all the worrying and hoping that goes along with that situation is certainly front-and-center of the thematic material, but there’s also ideas about coping mechanisms, the power of stories and morals to teach one about the real world, and the far-reaching influence of love in all its forms.
Most negative reviews of this film criticize the film for struggling to understand its audience, and thereby missing the tone. They claim that the film is too dark or depressing for a young-adult or child spectator, and too predictable and melodramatic for more mature audiences. The resulting tone, these critics claim, misses both marks and winds up in some compromised middle, souring the film. I disagree.
A Monster Calls certainly wears its narrative on its sleeve, and it does not take much inference to understand what is going to happen, especially given the various clues and examples of foreshadowing. Regardless, it is absurd to qualify this narrative as melodramatic. Given the subject matter, there are precious few of “those scenes”: bawling in a hospital room, long-winded professions of caring and love, and emotional outbursts. Much is left in between the lines. To top it all off, I would argue that Conor’s story, which he must tell to The Monster, takes a remarkable twist that I did not see coming, but that was 100% believable. There is far too much care and craft going into this film to dismiss it as a tone-deaf melodrama. Finally, I cannot offer up enough superlatives to describe the ending of A Monster Calls; it is absolutely perfect.
If you value animation, brilliant and unique storytelling devices, and genuine emotion, you should leap at a chance to see A Monster Calls. It is at once an exploration of a challenging time, and an emotional balm to help you through it. It is an emotional struggle for sure, but it is not a bummer. The film celebrates those intangible gifts that we are all given by those who leave this world, gifts that remind us that our loved ones existed – and left a palpable mark.
Thanks again for reading my thoughts on A Monster Calls, a film that came way out of left field for me and ending up being a wonderful surprise. Let me know your thoughts on the film, especially regarding whether you felt the story was too obvious, melodramatic, or even too dark for young adults / children. I’d also like to know if you’re interested in reading a review of another of J.A. Bayona’s films, El Orfanato, which I think is similarly amazing (though in a completely different genre). So, sound off down in the comments or on my twitter page (and give me a follow, if you like), and let me know what you thought! Don’t be afraid to click around and check out some of my other stuff, either.