In the Chronicles Of Narnia films, Liam Neeson played a magical talking lion that dispensed wise words to children. In his latest film, A Monster Calls, he plays a magical talking tree that dispenses wise words to a single child.
Is this a promotion or demotion for the actor? It’s really not certain. What you can be sure of, however, is that Neeson’s gravelly baritone voice is one of the best parts of A Monster Calls. This new film by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) may look like a whimsical children’s fantasy at first glance, but do not be fooled: it’s actually a moving, occasionally heartbreaking meditation on death, truth and human nature.
A Monster Calls is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness (who also did the screenplay), whose story was based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before she could complete her work.
The film tells the tale of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a young British boy whose life isn’t exactly strawberries and cream: his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer, and he’s being picked on by bullies at school. Conor’s distant and unreliable father (Toby Kebbell) lives abroad, and he is sent to live with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
And to complicate matters, a giant monster emerges from the yew tree outside his garden at precisely 12.07 every night. This creature (who looks like the love child of Treebeard from Lord Of The Rings and the lava monster from Moana), however, does not want to eat him. No, it wants to tell him stories instead.
Wait, what? No, you haven’t read wrongly: this monster enjoys telling fractured fairy tales, which start conventionally and take peculiar twists towards the end. These little interludes are gorgeously animated to look like wet-ink paintings, and are most definitely the visual hughlight of the film.
Conor soon realises that there are important lessons buried within these strange, paradoxical stories, which he must pick up if he wants to get his life back in order. Most distressingly, however, is the fact that the monster also demands a story from him: one that will force him to confront some harsh truths about himself and his family.
Contrasting fantasy and reality is not a new thing. It’s been done in Pan’s Labyrinth and Bridge To Terabithia, two films which, indeed, A Monster Calls occasionally feels like. While those films used fantasy as escapism, as a fantastical retreat from difficult circumstances, Bayona’s film seems to go in the other direction. Rather, the monster seems to represent the dark impulses in the human psyche, which Conor must learn to understand – and accept – to move forward.
There are quite a lot of dark themes in this film which is, after all, about a child’s acceptance of mortality. Fortunately, Bayona never lets things get too bleak. Everything builds up to a sensitive, rather moving ending which will definitely cause some viewers to get their hankies out.
Performances are good. Jones and Kebbell carry off their characters well, while the ever-dependable Weaver is on top form; a scene with her reacting to one of Conor’s destructive outbursts provides an amazingly emotional climax to the film.
The full burden of A Monster Calls, however, is on MacDougall, who does a terrific job as the film’s young protagonist. The lad (previously seen in Pan) may be only 14, but he turns in a fantastically nuanced, emotional performance. He’s certainly an actor to look forward to seeing in the future.
The effects are also top-notch. Yes, Neeson’s monster may sometimes resemble a video game character, but generally looks quite believable and impressive. There are a few wonderful scenes, especially one with a crumbling landscape, that are very memorable. And of course, we’ve already mentioned the animated interludes, but we’ll mention them again because dang, they are the best part of the movie!
No, the film is not perfect. It starts off very slow: it is also very easy to lose interest until the pace finally picks up, around the time of the monster’s first story. Certain scenes feel disjointed, a subplot with some bullies is not resolved very satisfyingly, and its rather tear-jerking ending might be seen as a little contrived.
Despite this, Bayona’s latest film is definitely worth a watch, and you’d best bring a packet of tissues with you into the cinema, just in case. A dark, heartbreaking and sombre coming-of-age story, A Monster Calls is definitely worth catching.
A Monster Calls
Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson (voice)