Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own universally acclaimed bestselling novel, A Monster Calls centres around Conor, a 12-year-old boy struggling with deep personal issues of his own, including dealing with school bullies, an absent father, a strict grandmother, and a mother struck with a terminal illness. Meanwhile, every day at seven minutes past twelve, a monster (a giant humanoid tree who almost looks like Groot’s grandad) visits Conor and promises to share three stories with him in exchange for one truthful confession. These stories intertwine with the real human drama at the centre of this powerful movie, which explores the concepts of courage, loss and faith, showing that through these allegorical tales comes lessons that have to be learnt in order to pick yourself up and move forward.
Like with The Orphanage and The Impossible before it, director J.A. Bayona has crafted an emotionally, heart-wrenching movie that displays real genuine and raw power when it needs to, as well as delivering a story that speaks universal truths to all, which will make certain audiences identify and connect with it on that level. It deals with the subjects of loss and grief and the need of enduring emotional pain when dealing with the inevitable fact that you could lose a dear loved one very soon, and both Bayona and Ness portray those emotions in a way that feels very real without it becoming overly sentimental or saccharine. It’s very little surprise that gifted actors were chosen for these specific roles; Toby Kebbell impresses as the absent father that’s struggling to make amends, while Sigourney Weaver makes for a classy addition as the stiff yet emotionally conflicted grandmother. Even with it being a motion-captured performance, Liam Neeson is still a commanding presence as ‘The Monster’, thanks to his rich vocal delivery, which is complimented by the brilliant special effects work.
Felicity Jones also brings real life and soul into the role of the caring mother that’s going through very trying times both physically and emotionally, bringing real heart and compassion with her truly heartbreaking delivery (“I wish I could give you 100 years”). But it’s Lewis MacDougall that truly astonishes, not only by veering from angry and sensitive to hurt and conflicted, but also by making Conor’s emotions come across as genuinely real and raw, as he goes on his transformative and inspiring journey.
The art design involved is beautiful, especially with its gorgeously rendered animated fairytale sequences, echoing the artstyle of the famous scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, and Fernando Velázquez’s score is used both intelligently and effectively to reflect the sombre and emotional atmosphere. The cinematography by Oscar Faura is practically faultless, perfectly capturing the dreary reality of a Northern winter (Chorley/Horwich and Marsden Denshaw creatively used as backdrops), as well as fantastical warmth and serenity of the strange dream-like sequences.
Although A Monster Calls offers epic visual spectacle, the beauty of this film is that it’s always rooted in truthful emotion. At its core is a mother-and-son story that is universal in scope and would connect with anyone watching on a deep and personal level. Many have compared J.A. Bayona to Guillermo Del Toro (that would be right considering this is similar in ways to Pan’s Labyrinth), but comparing him to Steven Spielberg is more valid considering his films occasionally revolve around a troubled young child who goes on an emotional discovery about himself. Whichever way you look at it, A Monster Calls is an expertly crafted and powerful story that is heartfelt, as well as inspirational.
A MONSTER CALLS / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: J. A. BAYONA / SCREENPLAY: PATRICK NESS / STARRING: LEWIS MACDOUGALL, LIAM NEESON, FELICITY JONES, SIGOURNEY WEAVER, TOBY KEBBELL / RELEASE DATE: 8TH MAY