Starring Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbel
Written by: Patrick Ness; from his novel
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Rated ‘PG-13’ for thematic elements, fantastical images and a greying of an innocent world
Runtime 108 minutes
A Monster Calls is a story of stories, of fantasy, of escape. We escape into fantasy because the world is complex and depressing. We yearn for easy answers to the problems and swirling emotions that plague us. We create worlds, denizens, histories as a way out of pain, out of reality. Every time a child ducks through a wardrobe or is spirited away by a tornado, they are running to a simpler world, a better world.
J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls has a boy befriend a monster – though perhaps it is more the other way around – but discover that even the fantastic is not as black and white as it appears. Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is in a bad place. His mom (Felicity Jones) is dying of some unknowable disease and his wicked grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is going to take him away. Then, the monster calls. A giant anthropomorphic yew tree voiced with a fierceness by Liam Neeson. The tree is all spindly limbs, burning eyes and knotty muscles, a giant Ent from the First Age of Middle-earth. Unfortunately for Connor, the Monster is not here to fix the boy’s problems. At least not in the way one normally expects these problems to be fixed. Instead, the Monster is here to tell stories. Three stories to be precise, and in return, he expects a fourth.
Over the course of weeks and months, the Monster appears – always at 12:07 – when Connor is puzzled by the world and his emotions. Think of them as semi-regular therapist appointments. It is an effective device, one that we don’t see in a lot of “kids” movies. The stories themselves are told through a beautiful and haunting watercolor animation style. The settings and characters always differ, but the central theme remains: life and people are complicated. No one is ever truly good nor truly bad; a witch may be kind, and a beloved prince may do much evil in the name of good. Even I am simplifying them!
At the heart of the adventure is MacDougall. Remember his name. There have been many great child performances this year (Moonlight comes to mind) but MacDougall has to carry the burden of a film like no one else. He is right at home laying waste to a room or laughing on a carousel with his itinerant father (Toby Kebbel): MacDougall is simply wonderful. He gets it. The loss, the helplessness. And the rage, oh such rage in his heart! We have seen children act out before, never like this. They’re hurt, they’re scared. Connor is something else, too. I’ll let you watch to find out what, but it’s not a genuine emotion we normally associate with children because they shouldn’t have to feel it. Parents die. It’s supposed to be later, when we have developed the capabilities to understand it. To watch this young man grow before our eyes as he wrestles with the swirling grey storm of life is phenomenal.
Bayona delicately balances the real and the fantastic nearly perfectly. The film is beautiful and mundane, wild and normal. Nor do you ever question the surreality of a giant tree traipsing through the English countryside. Is he real? He may not be as fake as he furst appears. You come for the monster, for the supernatural destruction Connor rains down on the world. You stay for the reality, handled do beautifully because this is a familiar road Connor walks; a road we all must at some point or another. And when it hits, it hurts. Like a bullet straight to the heart, A Monster Calls bores to the very soul of you.
Felicity Jones (Rogue One) caps off her 2016 with her finest performance. Dying, wasting away, she may be the one good thing in Connor’s life. But even the grandma, played ably by Weaver, has a touch of grey in her. Which is the beauty of the film. It does not peddle in easy answers. A Monster Calls understands that life is complicated and even though we want the monster, that magical force, to come in and save us, life doesn’t work that way. Like the best children’s films from the 80s (Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal) it can be very dark. But what is light without the darkness?
If you love stories, you will love A Monster Calls. It is an ode to the power of storytelling – our oldest tradition, still strong after eons. Through stories, we learn the ins and outs of life. The art of telling has changed, but even today, with out fancy games and CGI soaked films, the act of wanting to, yearning to, needing to tell a story remains. We learn so much from these bits and pieces of pop culture. A Monster Calls celebrates the complexity and power and beauty of the tales we tell. One of my favorite films of the last decade is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. To me, there is no better examination of the beauty and sadness of growing up. There are also happened to be monsters; silly, sad, scary monsters. A Monster Calls comes close to touching the greatness of that film and perhaps, in the years to come, will be as well regarded. For now, growing up sucks. It’s best to have a friend by your side. Especially if that friend is a monster.