Grief is something that we all have to deal with at some point in our lives. Like a number of recent films that use fantasy conventions to process themes of mortality and emotional upheaval, A Monster Calls makes its thunderous impact feel real. The earth shakes, heavy breathing is heard, pencils roll off on their own and the rage and sadness of a little boy is made monstrous.
J.A. Bayona’s third feature is adapted from the acclaimed novel by Patrick Ness, Jim Kay and the late Siobhan Dowd, and tells the story of Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a 12-year-old boy coming to terms with his mother’s long-term illness. Lizzie (Felicity Jones) has always understood him and been there for him, while his absent father (Toby Kebbell) and distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) have not. The prospect of life without her, in a miserable rural town where he is bullied mercilessly at school, is understandably upsetting.
When Conor wakes from a recurring nightmare early on, he’s visited by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who disguises itself as an ancient yew tree in the nearby cemetery, like a great big wooden Transformer. The monster has come to heal and promises he will tell the boy three stories on his subsequent visits, in exchange for one truthful story from Conor at the end of it all.
It’s an artful adaptation that hews closely to the source material both in structure (Ness provided the screenplay too) and aesthetic, as Kay’s illustrations are transferred over in the form of gorgeous watercolour animated sequences for each of the monster’s stories. The gorgeous and colourful animation belies the darker content of these fables, all of which relates back to the central characters.
For all of the low fantasy spectacle that ensues, the film still rests heavily on the young lead’s shoulders. Introduced as “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”, Conor is a difficult character to play, an adolescent who’s full of contradictions, and but MacDougall is an expressive performer who more than lives up to the spotlight. His behaviour understandably borders on brattiness a lot of times, but the story is wholly sympathetic for all of its characters and MacDougall reins it back in.
The other standout is Weaver as the grandma, rising above her own slightly shaky transatlantic accent to deliver a terrific performance. She’s introduced as brisk and unfeeling from Conor’s perspective but one scene soon after, in which he pushes her to unthinkable extremes, rests on Weaver’s silent reaction, and Bayona allows the enormity of what has happened to settle in over this moment and several scenes that follow. Here, fantasy has a massive impact on the everyday.
That low fantasy quotient is important here – across those three beautifully animated stories, the message is that the binary judgements of good and evil from fables don’t necessarily apply to reality, nor to this story. Conor is not a saint because he’s sad, his grandmother is not the Devil because she wants to him to come and live with her instead of looking after his mother.
By necessity, Lizzie is the least complex character, more saintly and sickly than active, but Jones makes the most of her understated and mostly bedridden turn. Elsewhere, as the monster, Neeson brings enormous gravitas to what could have been a grumpy uncle Groot, through performance capture and his cinema-shaking voice. There’s no hurry to clarify the precise nature of the monster, but watch out for a subtle appearance by Neeson himself elsewhere in the film, providing a clue that deepens the character rather than demystifying him.
However, given the attention to character detail elsewhere, the two-dimensional school bullies, led by James Melville, feel like they’ve stomped in from another film. Anyone who has ever been bullied will recognise the senseless cruelty, but this sub-plot hardly ever gels with the rest of the film and it feels a little too obvious. On a similar note, Fernando Velázquez’s tinkly piano score indulges a little in the sentimentality of other weepies while the film never does.
But all in all, it’s a straightforward story that proves to be enormously moving, thanks to strong performances and a willingness to portray flawed characters. If nothing else, with his use of horror movie conventions, emotional setpieces and his knack for discovering young actors (see also: Tom ‘Spider-Man’ Holland in The Impossible), this can’t fail to convince you that Bayona’s upcoming Jurassic World sequel should be something special.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to be emotionally manipulated by a film, A Monster Calls is loudly and proudly not for you – there will be tears. But unfortunately, grief is something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives, and even if for some unearthly reason you want to avoid feeling anything from entertainment, this film makes a gorgeous and ambitious attempt to tackle it. Though it may be a little didactic for some older viewers and it’s much too harrowing for the youngest of kids, its soulful and compassionate treatment of a universal experience is not easily shaken off.
A Monster Calls is in UK cinemas now.