'A Monster Calls'
‘A Monster Calls’ is one of those movies for children designed to impart a life lesson through CGI fantasy – you know, those ones that use the label “fairy tale” as a compliment. The movie is simple and direct in a way that will strike some like a raw nerve and feel tediously obvious to others. Both reactions are true and valid. For me, the joys of the former thankfully outweigh the eye-rolls of the later.
Based on a novel by Patrick Ness (who also penned the screenplay), ‘A Monster Calls’ is a film about death. Specifically, it’s about that wildly emotional and uncomfortable first encounter with death that we all have as children and shapes us eternally. The kid in question here is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), one of those imaginatively arty kids who gets bullied at school and loved by movie audiences. His mother (Felicity Jones) is his entire world and she has cancer, so that world is about to come tumbling down. While the mom digs in for the final stretch of her disease/life, Conor finds himself in a space of emotional turmoil. He’s torn between awkward visits with an absentee father (Toby Kebbell) and an intensely overwound grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), neither of whom provides the home or support he needs. Oh, and then there’s the giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who appears to the boy every evening just after midnight to tell him a dark and strange fable that will impact his life in some way.
The film comes from J.A. Bayona, a director who broke into the international movie market under the watchful eye of Guillermo del Toro with ‘The Orphanage‘ and delivers a version of del Toro-lite here. The way the story overtly ties human trauma to fairy tale trauma is straight out of del Toro’s playbook, but Bayona’s approach is neither as darkly personal nor as visually imaginative. Del Toro likely could have crushed this material if he hadn’t already made several better versions of the story, so Bayona’s del Toro impersonation act suits the material just fine. He’s a strong visual stylist in his own right and a pretty solid storyteller as well. He’s just no master (yet), and that’s what this material demanded and deserved.
Still, it works well enough, with Bayona nimbly balancing the real world and fantasy elements. He keeps reality stark and handheld visually, playing emotions outsized enough yet events small enough to feel like a child dipping off the deep end. Felicity Jones is dependably remarkable in a decaying role. Kebbell and Weaver both prevent their symbolic side characters from becoming cartoons, and MacDougall anchors everything with an ease no actor should have at his tender age. It works, yet it feels somewhat forced. As hard as Bayona tries to make the human drama drip with kitchen sink realism, he’s ultimately stuck in melodrama. Scenes are too rushed and drama is too simplistic. The movie is played about as well as possible, but the script just isn’t as grounded or truthful as it needs to be.
Thankfully, the fantasy element is far more on-point. Bayona stages the stories in a gorgeously rendered watercolor art style that’s both evocatively creepy and beautifully stylish. The fantasies weaved are moving and just the right level of wrong (in the traditional Grimm fairy tale sense). The monster design is brilliant, a snarling mound of twisted trees with warm eyes along with a soothing Liam Neeson drawl to make it go down sweetly. Lewis MacDougall plays wonderfully off his invisible green-screen monster, and theses sequences are every bit as unsettling, moving, magical and transportative as intended. The trouble comes in the way the story snaps back to reality, which is supposed to be jarring in tone, not in quality.
For all its flaws, ‘A Monster Calls’ is a grand children’s film that plays as art, the sort of thing that last year’s ‘Pete’s Dragon’ remake was praised for but came even less close to properly achieving. Perhaps it’s no ‘E.T.’ or ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, but what is? Considering how difficult it is to nail the delicate balancing act of metaphoric childish fantasy with heartbreaking childhood reality, merely coming as close to the goal line as ‘A Monster Calls’ does qualifies as a special achievement. It’s the ideal film for those imaginative and quiet kids who grew out of ‘Minions’ before they were taller than a Minion, as well as parents who don’t mind having a good sob in front of their youngins. On top of that, the film confirms Bayona’s directorial talents. He has yet to make a truly great film or a truly bad one. The next project should confirm which side he’ll lean towards for the rest of his career.