Purely from the premise alone it’s easy to know what to expect from A Monster Calls. A lot of emotion, followed by a few tears until moving onto the next thing in your day. But to do so would overlook how thoughtfully this book-to-film adaption approaches a sensitive (albeit often-explored) subject, and willing it is to do so in a family film.
A Monster Calls (2016) is a low-fantasy family drama film directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage) and written by Patrick Ness. Based off a novella also written by Ness, it follows the story of Conor (Lewis Macdougal), a boy on the cusp of being a teenager whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. Threatened by the possibility moving in with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor is suddenly visited by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who promises to tell him three stories if Conor swears to tell him a fourth.
The introduction of the c-word immediately suggests the heavy drama to come (well, unless you’re Deadpool) and A Monster Calls pulls no punches even before a family audience in presenting the devastating illness. Without falling into the rabbit hole of bad cliches and emotional manipulate that strangle lesser movies, the film instead goes for the perspective of an adolescent boy and all the misconceptions and frayed information that comes with it. This approach, coupled with a number of emotionally devastating scenes during the final act make A Monster Calls a monstrous gut-punch to the heart that had half of my cinema crowd sobbing during the end credits. It doesn’t hold back, and the layers of metaphor and gravitas just add weight to an already sombre experience.
Speaking of the layered metaphor, the multiple interweaved stories leave plenty to think long after the credits roll. These stories, done in a gorgeous water-painted style, do feel slightly out of place in the film, likely due to the book-to-film transition, but flesh out the narrative and thematic undertones of the film in interesting ways, effectively placing another layer over an already interesting concept. This is all conveyed through the Monster himself, an amalgamation of an ancient tree and wizened old man. Its an impressive design, one that’s equally haunting and heart-warming at once while being wonderfully animated and even designed well on a sound level. Each arm and branch creaks like an ancient oak and of course the vocal chords of Liam Neeson are utterly perfect to bring the Monster to life, managing to be both fearsome and comforting in equal measures.
The rest of the cast is just as stellar. Lewis MacDougal is an awesome find, considering his only previous role was as a kid in Pan (shudder). The entire movie rests on his young shoulders and he stands stronger than many adult actors likely would, selling Conor’s inner turmoil completely naturally. Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell also do a great job as Conor’s grandmother and deadbeat dad respectively, and play off the young actor both with a degree of pathos. Also impressive in a highly critical role is Felicity Jones as Conor’s mother. From Rogue One to here, she’s got quite the range, and considering its critical for the audience to sympathise with her character, does a fine job.
Although perhaps a story better told in tree-corpse form, A Monster Calls is a loving and faithful adaption by the author, and should be commended for tackling such serious issues in what many will see as a family movie. Emotionally gripping with an incredible pseudo-debut performance by Lewis MacDougal, A Monster Calls may deliver exactly what the premise suggests, but that’s not a bad thing when its done to this standard.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended