It really doesn't matter how crushingly inevitable the end of A Monster Calls might seem, or even how lacking in surprises much of the rest of the film is; when it's emotional climax arrives, there's unlikely to be a dry eye in the house. The most original thing about the story is its giant tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson, but what it lacks in narrative daring, it more than makes up for by planting its roots deep down in your heart.
Connor is an artistic young boy struggling to come to terms with the terminal illness of his young mother (Felicity Jones). Bullied at school, left to run the home, and plagued by a recurring nightmare, he is soon visited in his dreams by the hulking great cross between a Transformer and an Ent. This ‘monster’ forces Connor to listen to three tales about kings, queens, pastors, and an invisible man. As Connor’s Mum’s illness worsens, Connor’s behaviour becomes more destructive, especially when his estranged father (Toby Kebbell) arrives from L.A. and Connor is forced to live with his uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
With a script by Patrick Ness, based on his own Y.A. book, A Monster Calls is a very mature affair. It’s dealing with death, fractured families and honest feelings of hopelessness, despair and worse make it refreshing even as it slides into melodrama. The characters around young Connor are not perfect, and though some are two-dimensional, it doesn’t detract from the emotionally-charged exchanges between Connor and his bullies, parents and grandmother.
Director J.A. Bayona follows drawing an impressive turn from Tom Holland in The Impossible by finding another gifted young actor to take on some seriously heavy emoting. Lewis MacDougall is a revelation as Connor carrying the film and delivering a challenging, heart wrenching performance as his tree friend reaches down into his soul and draws out some stirring, but uncomfortable emotional truths from the boy. It is completely MacDougall’s film with Weaver, Jones and Kebbell offering excellent support, but the truly outstanding work is all between MacDougall and the tree with the booming voice of Liam Neeson.
Bayona also throws in some delicious visual flourishes with the tree’s stories being brought to life in beautifully animated watercolours. The entire film is beautifully shot, edited and scored, but it is in these short stories where there are moral messages and wild tales brought to vivid life by the animation and Neeson’s gravelly narration. As reality and fantasy become increasingly blurred, Ness’ investment in his characters pays off, even if there are few surprises in where he’s taking us.
A Monster Calls can be a loud, CGI-filled beast of a movie at times, but it is in the quieter moments where it really earns its emotional pay-off. Despite its fantastical elements and occasionally obvious plot points, it is a film about emotional truths and an admirable attempt to inject some real heart and soul into a YA adaptation. And not even a love triangle in sight.
A MONSTER CALLS / CERT: 12A / DIRETOR: J.A. BAYONA / SCREENPLAY: PATRICK NESS / STARRING: LEWIS MACDOUGALL, SIGOURNEY WEAVER, FELICITY JONES, TOBY KEBBELL, LIAM NEESON / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 6TH
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10