A Monster Calls is a 2017 dark fantasy drama film directed by J.A. Bayona, the director of The Orphanage and The Impossible, and is based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness. The film stars Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall, and Liam Neeson.
The film centers on a young boy named Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who has it tough at school, as he is the unfortunate victim of a group of bullies and their leader, Harry (James Melville). Conor doesn't have it any easier at home, where he must deal with his stern grandmother, Mrs. Clayton (Sigourney Weaver). Nothing is harder for Conor, however, than the grief that he is stricken with when his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), is diagnosed with a terminal illness. One night, Conor is visited by a giant yew tree monster (Liam Neeson), who informs Conor that he will tell three stories. The monster says that Conor must then tell a fourth story, the truth behind Conor's recurring nightmare.
I cannot remember the last time that I found a film to be so skewered between two distinct target audiences. A Monster Calls is too dark and too much of a tearjerker to be a kids film, and it is too gentle with its thematic material to be strictly for adults. The PG-13 rating might have you thinking that the film leans more towards the adult side, but the line between PG (more kid-friendly) and PG-13 (less kid-friendly) today is so obscure, that I no longer know how to distinguish the two anymore. A Monster Calls aims to make you cry, which I don't find to be typical of many kids movies. If you will cry and if so, how much, depend on how relatable that the film's subject matter is to your own life. The movie also aims to be interpreted like a fairy tale, which might be a turn-off for adults who couldn't care an ounce for fables and family-friendly fantasy. It seems as if the movie has something to offer for everyone, and yet it is never clear if the target audience is everyone.
The interesting thing about A Monster Calls is its handling of the giant monster. The monster is a fictional figure within Conor's mind, influencing his thoughts and decisions within reality. I do appreciate how the film refuses to treat the monster strictly as a projection of Conor's anger and frustration, like in the way that the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are represent the hardships of Max. The monster in A Monster Calls is a figure to guide Conor through his grief, using stories that aren't as straightforward as a boy like Conor thinks they might be. He is not a gentle monster, insisting that he will not make Conor happy if Conor does not tell the fourth story.
- Liam Neeson is perfectly cast as the yew tree monster. Neeson is, arguably, best known nowadays as the ass-kicking Bryan Mills from the Taken trilogy, which would translate to him being suitable for a scary tree monster that can destroy everything at a moment's notice. Let's not forget that Neeson also has a history of more humble roles: Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List and Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. The monster needs not only to be menacing, but sympathetic too. Neeson nicely balances monstrous intimidation with emotional resonance. This might go down as one of his most underrated performances ever (the box office returns for this film were not exactly out of this world).
- There is not a consistent flow between Conor and his relationships with his mother, father, and grandmother. Since the story heavily hinges on the terminal illness of Conor's mother, Lizzie, we are to assume that these two will share hugs and kisses and spend quality mother-son bonding together. The extent of Conor and Lizzie's relationship within the film is a few hospital visits, Conor viewing memory tapes of he and his mother doing fun things together, and Lizzie showing up in Conor's ongoing nightmare. To put it differently, it seems that the film relegates Felicity Jones to a background character who only shows up when we start wondering where she is. The same goes for Toby Kebbell, who shows up and gives Conor moral support in only a few scenes. He could very much not be in the film at all. Conor's relationship with Mrs. Clayton jumps the gun as the two grow from disconnect to loving and caring with no smooth transition in between. All the while, it's a guessing game as to who Conor will speak to next after he has story time with the monster. The main result is a lot of forced sentimentality in the film's third act, which diminishes the film's tearjerk-inducing final moments.
I have no doubts that A Monster Calls resonates with a lot of people, especially those with a similar life experience as Conor O'Malley. This is not a film to feel ashamed of if you cried at some point during it. Liam Neeson's performance as the monster gives the film its emotional depth, blending a scary monster vibe with heartfelt support. The monster's relationship with Conor is the only character relationship within the film that comes off as developed. The four stories told during the film are supposed to give Conor insight on his relationships with his mother, father, grandmother, and with the bullies at school. This insight, unfortunately, does not translate to effective and consistent connected-ness between Conor and said people just mentioned. Conor's mother appears sporadically, Toby Kebbell shows up just enough to make you remember that he was even in the movie, and Mrs. Clayton doesn't quite cut it as a secondary villain to the school bullies. If you were curious, no, the film did not make me cry. Although, a small part of me wished that it would have.
Recommend? Yes, but I won't insist that it's a must-see
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