A benevolent monster befriending a troubled child and helping him/her grow-up is a well-worn storytelling trope; so with A Monster Calls I honestly didn’t expect to see anything I hadn’t seen many times before. It turns out I was very wrong and so pleasantly surprised. This is my favorite film of 2016 and one that touched me deeply on many levels.
On its surface A Monster Calls appears to be a kid’s movie, but don’t be fooled, I think most children, especially younger ones, will either be bored to tears or scared to death with this movie. This is a film for adults and one that dives deep into the complicated emotions that come with the death of a loved one.
This is far from a feel good movie (which is probably why it is not seeing wide release until now, a week after the cheery holiday season has ended), but it does finish with a very heart-warming, albeit tear-provoking, note.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a nerdish, pre-teen boy, living with his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones of Rogue One fame.) He’s an artistic introvert who is constantly besieged by bullies and under the threat of having to go live with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
One night a monster appears outside his bedroom, a creature spawned from the roots of an age-old tree that can be seen next to the graveyard outside of Conor’s window. At first the boy thinks the monster is there to help his mother, or to assist him with his bully problems, but, to the angry young man’s chagrin, the tree-thing is only there to tell him stories.
The monster (voiced wonderfully by Liam Neeson) is enormous and resembles a cross between Groot (from Guardians of the Galaxy) and DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, but with eyes and internal organs that appear to be made of lava. The creature is wise and patient and tolerant of the boy’s misplaced anger towards it; the type of friend we would all want, but might take for granted, during our most insecure and stressful moments.
The stories the monster tells in order to teach the complexities of life to the child are ingenious in their simplicity and are told with amazing animation sequences that appear to be some sort of terrific new water-coloring technique that I haven’t seen before. In my book, this film could be up for best animated movie as well as best picture.
Both the real world and animated stories build to the ending where Conor must face reality and the truth of his own feelings about his mother and her sickness. The climax is as heartbreaking as it is visually amazing, and if you can hold back your tears then you need to face the fact that you, yourself, might be a monster.
A Monster Calls is directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible – 2012) and is adapted from the award-winning novel of the same name by Patrick Ness and illustrator Jim Kay; which is based on an idea by the renowned author Siobhan Dowd, who, herself, died of breast cancer before she could finish this story.
The acting in this film is top-notch, with both Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones delivering Oscar worthy performances as a mother and son coming to terms with their painful and inevitable fates.
If you are a fan of old school monster movies (as I am), and especially if you are one who always has sympathy for the creatures in those films, then A Monster Calls is going to be an even more wondrous cinematic experience for you. I think you’ll love it as much as I did.
For my money, A Monster Calls is the best movie of the past year; and like any great monster it is beautiful, painful, noble and thought-provoking. This is an incredible film with a brilliant story that is masterfully told. Grade: 9.5/10
Photos © 2016 Focus Features