Film Review – A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls is billed as a family-friendly film to be enjoyed for the holiday season. However, the film did not open wide in theatres until January 6th, and there is that element of death, anger, and sadness that should be kept in mind before taking your 5-year-old to see it (and the PG-13 rating).
Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, Penny Dreadful) is a personal favorite of mine because he sets himself apart from other directors stylistically, especially when dealing with darker subjects. He has taken a young adult book by Patrick Ness (also the film’s screenwriter), illustrator Jim Kay, and an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, and turned it into a wonderful and frightening blend of watercolor animation, CGI graphics, and a darkened existence borne out of a cancer diagnosis.
A Monster Calls follows Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy grappling with his mother’s cancer diagnosis and bullies at school. Basically, nothing is going spectacular in his life. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives a world away in Los Angeles, and Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is not his favorite person. Conor’s Mum (Felicity Jones) tries to stay strong and present in Conor’s life, but her illness makes it so he has to take care of himself most of the time. Drawing is Conor’s one solace, something he shared with his mother. One night, the ewe tree on the hill where the church and graveyard comes to life. The Monster (voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson) comes to visit Conor to tell him three stories, and when he has told the third, Conor must tell him the fourth one.
It is the story of Conor and how he struggles with his Mum being sick while everything else just won’t work out for him that struck me as one that does not get told that often. If it has, it does not so as truthfully as this film. The film’s story embraces the hurt, anger, and sadness, both through the actions of Conor’s (especially towards his grandmother) and his interactions with The Monster. Basically, the kid can’t catch a break, but The Monster is a bit like a savior to Conor. He is hope where there is not much of any. Conor does not cower from The Monster; he embraces his existence, waiting for his return. Usually the kid actor, even if he is the main character, does not get top-billing in a film, but Lewis MacDougall does and he deserves all the praise thrown his way. He is the constant in the film and interacts with every character and even the CGI one. It is through his portrayal of Conor that we come to understand viscerally what he is going through.
This is a first for Felicity Jones, portraying a mother. It is quite a switch from her Rogue One: A Star Wars Story character to one so emotional and dealing with cancer. She isn’t the star of the film, but Mum is the catalyst to all that Conor is experiencing. Jones’ Mum is strong, but understanding of the shortcomings of her life and her ability to care for Conor. Conor is whole-heartedly giving her the will to live and to continue to struggle with cancer treatments. On the other hand, you have the grandmother. She is the one that goes against whatever Conor and Mum have set up in their lives. She is strict and does not have anything in common with her child or her grandchild, save for the absolute love for them. Sigourney Weaver plays her in an uptight, restricted way. She does not show much emotion in the beginning and is not prepared for the angered and rebellious will of Conor. As the film’s story proceeds, her walls are broken down, and the ending shows her true colors.
The style of the animation used for The Monster’s stories is one of the highlights of the film. It is made to look like it is being drawn with watercolors, no distinct lines and the blending of colors. The animation scenes look like they are taken from a children’s book. The Monster and these animation scenes show how director J.A. Bayona is continually pushing the boundaries of what is seen stylistically in films.
A Monster Calls is worth both the time and money to watch because of its story, the actors, and its unique animation. The story is more honest in its approach to dealing with a sick parent, not turning away from the feelings of anger that one might feel in these situations. It will inevitably make you cry. I shed not one tear in Manchester by the Sea, but this film got me right in the feels. It is this weird, but perfect mix of film styles plus a monster that make this a unique film that will hit you in the heart.