A Monster Calls (2016)
Stories are wild creatures.
Back in 2007, a thoughtfully spooky tale, The Orphanage, put Spaniard J.A. Bayona on the cinematic map. A film about creepy ghost kids, The Orphanage also explored heavy topics such as coping with the weight of the past. It was this interplay of emotional subtext interwoven into a larger genre template that made Bayona an inspired choice for his next project, 2012’s The Impossible, in which a family were tested against a natural disaster. Now in 2016 we have A Monster Calls, an adaptation of the acclaimed book, originally conceived by Siobhan Dowd during her tragic terminal illness and written to completion by Patrick Ness, who has now adapted the story into a screenplay. Keeping that in mind, death weighs heavily upon the narrative, with much of the point hinging on the acceptance of our mortality and the feelings that surface when forced to deal with it.
The story concerns a boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve-year old who’s barely surviving his own personal Hell. A day-dreaming loner at school, Conor is an easy target for bully Harry (James Melville), while at home, his life is also one of unease, with Conor having to live in defiant hope despite the obvious — his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is, in fact, dying. Threatening to shatter the fragile world in which he resides is his grandmother Mrs. Clayton (Sigourney Weaver), a hard-nosed matriarch, whom he may have to live with once his mother passes, his father (Toby Kebbell) having long left to start a new life in America, content to keep a distance.
Enter The Monster (Liam Neeson), a giant tree creature with lava in his veins and although something of a lucid dream, this massive beast has much to do with Conor’s real world. The Monster announces that he’ll tell three tales and the fourth will be told by Conor — a means to confront his truth. As Conor grapples with the profundity of The Monster’s stories, he is pushed to understand and accept the world around him, even as it appears to crumble.
Firstly, it should be noted that the all-round craftsmanship on display here is superb. The attention to detail, atmosphere and character is a truly beautiful thing to behold. It’s a shame, then, that as the storyline progressed, I found myself awfully puzzled and by the end, mixed in my feelings. Who is A Monster Calls intended for? What should we take away from it?
At its heart, A Monster Calls is a film about acceptance — of our world and our emotions, with all of the complexities they involve — a very important message indeed. With that being said, it almost feels as though filmmakers are trying to relay this weighty information to pre-adolescent children, as if to say, ‘You’re about to discover that there’s more to the world than what you know.’ However, in delivering this message to said audience, I couldn’t help but feel things get a little muddled.
See, the audience that the film so desperately wants to speak to are likely to find the pacing a bit sluggish, while conservative parents will consider the material too dark and confronting for their children. As for the themes themselves, there are aspects which seem underdeveloped (the bullying subplot) and others, plain confusing — one scene has Conor smashing his grandmother’s lounge to bits at the behest of The Monster, clearly a shocking and destructive thing to do, and yet, later, his mother tells him, ‘If you need to break things, by God, you break them!’ Add to this that no one wants to punish Conor for any of his wayward actions. Um, what?
It’s in wrangling with such things that A Monster Calls really falters — I accept that it’s more of a conversation starter rather than something that offers any sort of answers, but it could’ve, at least, been a bit more consistent in its intentions. Plus, for a movie that has plenty of painful truisms involving the horrific deterioration of human life through cancer, it’s kind of amazing that it ignores the idea that Conor might need some serious mental health help, which no-one seems to touch on. Perhaps the ignorance of others, living in their own bubbles, is part of the intent as well, but this seems like a missed opportunity to have opened up some sort of dialogue around the awareness of mental health.
Where the flick shines is in the realization of its fantasy world – Óscar Faura’s cinematography is consistently alluring, while the visual effects are astonishing, and do justice to the book’s illustrations by Jim Kay. Liam Neeson’s familiar dulcet tones resonate with wooden creaks and groans, courtesy of sound designer Oriol Tarragó, Crimson Peak (2015), while Neeson’s own performance comes through via motion-capture and beautiful CG animation, only adding to the towering presence of The Monster.
The rest of the central cast do rather well. Young Lewis MacDougall, Pan (2015), has so much heavy lifting to do and I feel that Bayona did a fantastic job in allowing him to shine. Felicity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), is, once again, a strong, natural and somehow familiar presence that, when combined with the sickly makeup by Julie Atkins, A Royal Night Out (2015), makes for a believable suffering cancer patient. Sigourney Weaver, Avatar (2009), I felt was the weakest link, but I think a good portion of this was due to the British-accented dialogue she’s forced to deliver — hearing her state, ‘Pick up your rucksack, I don’t want your father to think I’m keeping you in a pigsty!’ just didn’t feel right coming out of Weaver’s mouth.
In summary, while the intentions of A Monster Calls are honorable and the filmmaking craft is impeccable in many ways, it just can’t find clarity with its target audience or how it wants to convey its seemingly urgent messages. Still, with J.A. Bayona this comfortable in dealing with death and CG monsters, we’re no doubt in for a treat with his next project, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, out 2018.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie