A powerful tale that combines real-world tragedy with dark fairytales, A Monster Calls is a sad story with powerful theme. Following a young boy trying to deal with his mothers terminal illness, he finds company with a gigantic story-telling tree creature.
It is not difficult to empathise with Conor (Lewis MacDougall). He is bullied at school, his father is absent and his beloved mother (Felicity Jones) is slowly dying, meaning he will have to live with his stuffy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who has an ‘old lady’ home where he can’t touch anything. It is likely you will be crying toward the end, and hope you hear other people sniffling in the cinema with you. But this is not just a film about grief, but the journey grief can take you on.
MacDougall has taken on a complex role. His face is expressive with his eyes telling you that he is already grown up, yet still in a child’s’ body. Frustrated with many things in his life, his only out is his drawing, a wild imagination and talking with the gigantic tree spirit, voiced to gravelly perfection by Liam Neeson. The monster, whether Conor knows it or wants it too, the monster helps him through his grief by telling him stories, which are beautifully brought to life with water-coloured inspired animations.
The design of the monster has a Guillermo del Toro/Pan’s Labyrinth feel to it – earthy and beyond this world, not much of a surprise given that director J.A. Bayona’s debut feature was produced by del Toro. But this film is different, playing out less like a thriller, and a bit more weepy and emotional, yet with a clear personal touch.
The design of the film is what drew me to it, not just the design of the monster, who looks like it could be Groot’s grandfather. Conor and his mother house has a messy, cosy feel to it, a perfect contrast to his grandmothers house, where everything has its place and nothing should be touched. But also that this film has a very artistic feel to it, expressed particularly through Conor and his mother.
It is hard to define A Monster Calls as a children’s’ film or an adult’s film about childhood, and that straddling the two could be its weakness. It touches on a raw subject, and doesn’t skirt around the painfulness that is grief – the true ‘monster’ of the film, making it feel like its too grown up to be a children’s film. For adults like me, it is sure to leave a lasting impression, if you let the film in.
And after The Impossible, this is the second Bayona film I have left the cinema crying over. I wonder if he can make it three in a row.