A Monster Calls (2016)
Dir: J. A. Bayona
I went to see this after hearing plenty of very good things about it, yet this incredibly moving film still managed to take me by surprise with its beauty and brilliant handling of the story and themes.
Conor, a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) struggling to cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) serious illness, is visited by a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who tells him thought-provoking stories, each of which bring him closer to being able to confront his own unfolding tale.
I thought this was superb in all aspects, I’ve only seen it once but even from that single viewing I took away so much to love about this film. Firstly it’s a great story, adapted for the screen by the writer Patrick Ness, especially in the way it uses fantasy elements so hand-in-hand with reality to deal with difficult themes in such an engaging and effective way.
It manages to go seamlessly from fantasy elements into the reality, with some clever blending of the special effects. Director J. A. Bayona has shown his skills before in ‘The Impossible‘ and now again with this, proving that he can work with stunning visual effects in a completely integrated and believable way while also managing to get the very best performances out of young actors.
Lewis MacDougall is excellent in the central role of Conor and has already been nominated for a number of critics awards. He has to carry the entire film as he’s in every scene. I thought his portrayal was wholly believable, holding his own when on-screen with other more experienced actors and working with them perfectly.
Mum Lizzie is played by Felicity Jones (‘Rogue One‘) in an unflattering but emotional role. I’d not previously thought of her as playing a parent but she’s excellent, it’s a much warmer role than Jyn Erso and I think it shows her abilities off better. She’s suffering from a serious illness, which while having all the characteristics of cancer is not stated to be that, a very interesting and clever decision that both avoids the dreaded ‘C word’ while keeping the depiction of such a serious health issue a little more general.
Conor’s grandmother is played by Sigourney Weaver, who I liked in the role though she did at times seem to be working very hard on getting an English accent. At first I wasn’t sure about her playing Felicity Jones’ mother, though by the end she’d won me over as the way she carried her role was lovely.
Voicing the monster is none other than Liam Neeson (‘Silence’), who is a perfect choice. Even without any post-processing, Neeson’s voice befits a wise ancient tree monster with both the intimidation and warmth needed for such a creature. The stories the monster tells Conor are beautifully animated in a watercolour paint style that is so lovely to watch, colour seeps on the screen to create the images in a way that’s slightly abstract yet clear to follow as they are narrated by the monster. These scenes are almost little breaks from reality for the audience and Conor, who doesn’t always grasp their meaning straight away. In this way the film prompts us to think too, there aren’t simple or clear morals to these tales, but complexities and ambiguity that get elaborated on only partially.
I love the way it deals with the weighty subject matter and I feel it will resonate with many, though I do wonder if they’ll be as young as the protagonist or whether it’ll actually be more the parents who realise how fantastic this is. I’ve not suffered such a loss as the one depicted here but it made me well up with tears as the emotions are so raw and powerful. I saw the trailer again at the cinema the other day and it reminded me just how much I enjoyed this and want to see it again.
Bayona’s next film is the sequel to ‘Jurassic World’ which I think could be a really excellent fit, especially if he manages to apply the same skills yet again as those films usually feature a few kids getting into difficulty surrounded by impressive CGI. I just hope he retains some of what really makes his films special, the powerful emotional connection that they create. That’ll be hard with something on the scale of ‘Jurassic World 2’ but this wonderful film has built up my confidence that J. A. Bayona can achieve the impossible.
‘A Monster Calls’ is out now in cinemas, though not gaining the big awards recognition it deserves, it’s a film that will do very well when it’s available on home release and you should seek it out if still showing at a cinema.