Release date: 1st January 2017/Watch the trailer here
Spanish director J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the excellent The Impossible, has turned his hand to children’s novel A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness, before taking on the sequel to Jurassic World. It’s a varied filmography, but A Monster Calls is a varied film: part live action, part animation; part fairytale, part drama.
Our protagonist is twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a boy who is struggling to come to terms with the impending consequence of his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal cancer. He is bullied at school and he can’t think of anything worse than moving in with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and so to cope, he draws. Getting lost within his vivid imagination to avoid a horrible reality, Conor calls upon a monster (Liam Neeson) that lives within the yew tree outside his bedroom window to help his mother. The monster promises to first tell Conor three tales, but the stories make no sense to Conor. These aren’t fairytales with good guys and bad guys, where the villain dies at the end while the hero triumphs. These are real life.
The stories themselves are told through beautiful animation, their vibrancy juxtaposing with the grey and the gloom of the real world. A highlight is when Conor joins the monster within his tale, and helps him to smash the furniture and break the windows of a church. When Conor opens his eyes, he realises that he has all but destroyed his grandmother’s living room instead. Her reaction to finding some of her most prized possessions in pieces as a result of her grandson’s grief and anger is just one of the many heart-wrenching moments in A Monster Calls.
Because if there can only be one word to describe A Monster Calls, it would be heart-wrenching. Much like the monster’s stories, Conor’s own is not a happy one where good things happen to the good people and bad things happen to the bad people. As his father (Toby Kebbell) tells him, real life doesn’t always have happily ever afters – sometimes it’s more like ‘messily ever after’, and sometimes that’s OK.
It’s an important sentiment that isn’t seen often enough in films, but it’s even rarer to find such a sentiment in a children’s film. Arguably, A Monster Calls isn’t really a film intended for children – aside from a lack of a happily ever after, it’s a film that’s relentlessly dark and at times very bleak, and its slower pace may leave younger viewers feeling restless. For a slightly older audience, however, there’s a lot to be delighted by, even if it will undoubtedly leave you with a lump in your throat by the end. A Monster Calls will certainly resonate with anyone – child or otherwise – who has lost a parent too young, but the emotional appeal is universal and the performances of Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones are sincere and heartfelt enough to make that lump in your throat feel well-earned.
What Bayona has ultimately created is a film that will hopefully be remembered as a masterpiece for anyone stuck in that awful stage of too old to be a child but too young to be an adult. Despite the harsh truths at this story’s heart, A Monster Calls has a clever way of managing to find some light in even its darkest of moments.