A Monster Calls is a fantasy drama directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, 2012) and written for screen by Patrick Ness, author of the original novel based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd. Exploring an unendingly profound and sensitive topic, A Monster Calls is reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Gabor Csupo’s Bridge to Terabithia (2007) through its inclusion of fantasy creatures and interminable compassion.
The acting throughout this film is phenomenal. Lewis McDougall’s lead performance as Connor is flawless – and this is only his second professional acting role, you certainly wouldn’t think as much. Felicity Jones plays his mum who has terminal, incurable, cancer; Connor, forced to take responsibility, looks after himself while his mother recovers from frequent bouts of debilitating treatment.
Sigourney Weaver stars as Connor’s grandmother who attempts to guide and nurture him against his protestations and refusal to accept the inevitable. The dysfunctional family dynamic that we bear witness to is undoubtedly plausible and convincing. From the outset, we know how the film will end. Nothing is explicitly said, but you can comprehend the unspoken. Connor’s mum is, regrettably, introduced to us at a time where all that remains is hope.
The impact of his mum’s illness and the subsequent suffering that Connor experiences is difficult to watch. He does not blame his mum for anything, instead, he dangerously shrugs his feeling off as feeling ‘fine’ and bottles them up – concentrating all his efforts into helping his Mum and being as little trouble as possible.
Enter the Monster: Liam Neeson lends his thunderous voice (and mo-capped moves) to the Monster – a tree being that approaches Connor after he constantly suffers from a recurring nightmare. The Monster declares that he will tell Connor three stories over time and in return, Connor must speak of his nightmare.
Despite his objecting, Connor is unable to resist.
The Monsters’ story sequences are beautifully presented in animated form, offering a respite from the unfair domain of reality for both Connor and the audience. The first story instantly reminded me of the animated sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part One): ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’. The second features stop-motion animation that is seamless in its execution. Finally, the film features a scene containing both animation and live action as Connor is immersed in a tale of destruction, both mentally and physically.
“I normally don’t like movies where you can see stories inside a story, and you see other actors playing stories into a story that has its own actors. I always find it very distracting, so I thought animation is the best way to explain that.
Then I thought about the drawings of the book, and then I had this idea that I wanted Conor to be an artist because I was obsessed with drawing when I was a kid, too. It was a way of finding something very personal to me.” – J.A. Bayona
It’s encouraging to see the segregation of animation and live action becoming a thing of the past: typically, they exist as separate entities, but they unmistakably enrich stories when they are utilised simultaneously.
A Monster Calls is a rare beast: it carefully navigates a sensitive subject with tact and creativity. It offers a source of empathy as well as a method of surviving such a situation. It touches the very core of your being: when I viewed it yesterday, there wasn’t a single audience member who wasn’t trying to hold back tears.
It’s a powerful film: it taps into your emotions with a compassion that I’ve not experienced in a film before. My only criticism would be that it may prove too sentimental for children of Connor’s age. While the PG-13 rating is appropriate, this is certainly not a children’s film.
Please, go and experience it for yourself, but don’t forget the tissues.
Thanks for reading.
Have you seen A Monster Calls? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.