A Monsters Calls is a visually impressive and emotionally dexterous fantasy about a 13-year-old British boy with a sick mother who unwittingly calls to life a giant, gnarled monster that visits him in the dark of night. The monster, which is embodied from the trunk and branches of a massive, ancient yew tree that overlooks a graveyard and church the boy can see from his bedroom window, tells him a series of stories, which the boy does not initially understand. The stories are brought to life via computer animation that recalls older forms of visual storytelling, which is the film's most obvious manifestation of new technology evoking past material forms. There is something both poetic and stirring about the film's embrace of storytelling as a rite of passage-the handing down of received wisdom from the old to the young.
The boy, Conor, is played by newcomer Lewis MacDougall, who has a poignant fragility to him that is perfectly suited to his character, who is thoughtful and shy, but also unexpectedly brave (his first encounter with the monster, which should terrify him, does not). The monster, an impressively expressive CGI creation, is voiced by Liam Neeson, whose familiar cadences are given a coating of additional depth and texture, which makes it sound as if his words are literally emerging from a mouth coated in bark. The monster is visually frightening at times, but also benevolent and gentle, which makes him the perfect visual metonym for the film's underlying message about the inherent complexities of life and the people with whom we share it.
The other people in Conor's life include his mother (Felicity Jones), who is gentle and loving-an almost overly sanctified version of a mother-ideal-and his grandmother (Signourney Weaver), who is quite the opposite. The grandmother is brusque and to the point, practical and emotionally distant where the mother is idealistic and warm. They conflict over how to help Conor deal with the fact that his mother is terminally ill and will likely die soon, which will leave Conor to live with the grandmother. He has a father, played by Toby Kebbell, who is divorced from the mother and lives in the United States with a new family. He comes to visit and attempts to help, but he is, in his own way, just as distant as the grandmother, which only exacerbates Conor's loneliness and sense of isolation in dealing with his impending loss. Things are not much better at school, where Conor is the victim of bullies who don't understand his aloofness and mock his drawings and paintings, which are his means of coping and expressing himself. It is not surprising, then, that Conor acts out violently at some points, both in his fantasy world (where he and the monster smash the church) and literally (when he destroys his grandmother's sitting room, including a beloved heirloom clock).
Like many fairy tales and folk stories, A Monsters Calls is ultimately about the difficulty of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, especially in terms of coming to grips with the messiness and unfairness of life. So many stories from early childhood teach us clear lessons about right and wrong and good and evil, which establish binaries that are useful in our early years, but prove to be woefully inadequate to the realities of adult life. The painful truth is that good doesn't always win, evil often triumphs, goodness is not always rewarded, and things that feel utterly inexplicable, unfair, and downright cruel happen. The threat of Conor losing his mother-not because she was bad or because she somehow deserves to be terminally ill-gives the film's moral universe a stark, defining backbone, something with which we can all identify on some level. Conor resists the monster's stories because they don't fit the binary worldview of his childhood, which his mother's impending death is forcing him to quickly shed. The monster's stories seem almost brutally ironic, but each is intended to confront Conor and make him recognize the difficulties of the adult world and his own limitations.
A Monsters Calls was based on the 2011 award-winning novel by Patrick Ness, who also penned the script. Ness wrote the novel from an original idea by novelist Siobhan Dowd that she came up with while battling terminal breast cancer. She died before she was able write it, which gives the story an added level of extratextual poignancy. Spanish director J.A. Bayona, who is best known in the U.S. for directing the Guillermo del Toro-produced horror film The Orphanage (2008) and the drama The Impossible (2012), which was based on the true story of a family's improbable survival of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Bayona has a strong visual sensibility, and When a Monster Calls gives him plenty of space to experiment with extreme shallow focus, close-ups, and abstract imagery. There is a constant blurring throughout the film between fantasy and reality, waking and dreaming, and Bayona and his regular cinematographer Oscar Faura give the entire film a unique aura that reminded me of old parchment paper. Its visual eloquence is simultaneously old and new, but what I appreciated most about it was the way it marshals a fantastical story in the service of some very basic, but too often underappreciated, emotional truths.
Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Focus Features
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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