I think it’s important before reviewing the various aspects of A Monster Calls to stop and take a moment to realize how much of a rare beast a film such as this is. This is a mid-budget $45 million production with a significant amount of special effects funded by the arm of a major studio, two factors alone which are not altogether common in this day and age. The film also features a cast of recognizable names and is geared towards younger audiences. Regardless of how effective the film is, the fact that all of these elements are present in one of the year’s most anticipated releases is a marvel in and of itself. Even better than all of this is the fact the film has to be one of the most moving illustrations of cinematic grief and a tribute to the eternally-underestimated resilience of children.
In A Monster Calls, 12-year-old Connor (Lewis McDougall) is going through one of the most confusing and trying times of his young life. His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a form of cancer which is only getting worse, and he must face the fact that he will soon have to go live with his somewhat distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). As if this weren’t enough, Connor finds himself bullied at school on a regular basis and has no friends of his own. One night, at just after midnight, Connor hears a rumbling coming from the backyard and looks out his window to see a large tree transform into a spectacular monster (Liam Neeson), who proceeds to teach the boy some of life’s most important lessons.
Directed by J.A. Bayona (the genius filmmaker behind The Orphanage), A Monster Calls has to be one of the most visually stunning films of the year. It is so easy to get lost in all of the wonder, imagination, and dark beauty that exists within the film’s more fantastic sequences in ways no one ever sees coming. Even now typing out this review I find it hard to convey the sheer beauty of the film, which extends beyond just colors and sequences to literally trigger emotions of wonder and soulfulness within each audience member watching. Employing the use of watercolors gives the beauty a sort of melancholy darkness that is more than appropriate and serves both the stories and characters well instead of just functioning on an aesthetic level. Best of all, however, is how Bayona effortlessly mixes both practical effects with cutting edge CGI, a practice seldom done in an age where every element not human is digitally enhanced within an inch of its life.
A person would be hard pressed to find a film which conveys life lessons in the way that A Monster Calls does. The film avoids taking the preachy, self-righteous route most other films with child protagonists do with whatever ideology they want their characters to adopt. Instead, it’s in the immense emotional depths to which the story forces Connor to explore where the film rightfully earns its credibility. This is an incredibly cathartic tale of love and loss that is never afraid to show the harshness of life. The bulk of these lessons are conveyed through the various stories the monster tells Connor upon his visits, each one a morality tale signifying how life is actually very seldom black and white, but rather an endless sea of grey. Eventually, it becomes clear that the monster is more than just a fantastic escape for Connor. He is actually a representation of all of life’s complexities which frighten us. In Connor’s case, it is the fear of letting his mother go.
There isn’t an actor in the cast of A Monster Calls who doesn’t want their performance to be as powerful as the material in front of them. McDougall gives one of the top breakthrough performances of the year in a role that carries so much emotional heft, which he is more than capable of handling. Hopefully this will be one in a long line of many stunning performances yet to come for the young actor. Neeson as the monster does more than treat his role as just another voice/motion capture performance and brings the right amount pathos to the film’s most indelible character. As for the grown-ups, despite a questionable accent, Weaver is at her best in years as Granny, who in a scene without any dialogue powerfully shows her character’s intense grief. The film’s best performance belongs to Jones, who makes her mother character so incredibly heartbreaking as she carries out her mission of not wanting to let her illness ruin her son’s childhood.
The essence of childhood is far from an easy aspect of life to capture on film. Trying to capture when such a period of life ends is even harder. And yet, A Monster Calls pulls it off perfectly. Connor’s adventures with the monster beautifully represent the end of childhood and the start of his journey into growing up. So much of the film feels like the type of wildly imaginative and exciting fare that used to populate the summer movie season before tentpoles took over. However, releasing this movie in the summertime would, in a way, be doing it a great disservice. It would be dismissing A Monster Calls as a special effects extravaganza/family film rather than the profoundly deep and realistic tale of loss, love. and strength that it truly is.
A Monster Calls opens January 6, 2017 in the U.S.