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A Monster Calls – Movie Review

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A Monster Calls – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Universal Pictures

A Monster Calls marks the third film this year to tackle the idea of a child befriending a giant creature, following Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake. All of them are distinct from each other, showing different ways in which children face the realities of the world. With A Monster Calls, J.A. Bayona seeks to put his lead character through the most heartbreak and torment and even the monster he meets is hardly friendly. It also feels the most like a stereotypical British children’s fantasy, despite the Spanish heritage of its director and crew. That works to the film’s advantage and also highlights its flaws. It’s a solid, well meaning picture but one feels it should have been more emotional.

The main conflict in the film arises from Conor’s mother developing cancer. The film does not initially make too big a fuss about this plot point, but it continues to grow bigger and bigger as the film goes on. It drives Conor in his decisions and eventual meeting with the tree monster, voiced with ferocious intensity by Liam Neeson. His connection with his mother is shown well with their kindred spirit and why her possible loss of life will affect him greatly. Less successful is the clichéd plot device of school yard bullies who torment Conor for reasons that are unclear and never fully explored. These under-written characters seem to exist purely to pummel Conor further into his fantasy world and little else.

Conor’s interactions with the monster usually involve three stories told by him in the form of animated vignettes. Serving as a kind of therapy, they create the necessary growth of our lead, though one’s patience with these segments will vary from person to person. With the budget used to create the impressive effects on the monster, it does not seem like much was left over for the animated scenes, which have a cheap look to them. With hand-drawn animation being a less used and more cost effective style of animation than computer effects, it feels like a disappointing missed opportunity not to employ the talents of one of a number of still working hand-drawn studios. Seeing these scenes produced by former Disney animators would have been stunning.

Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness, adapting his own novel, make the unusual decision to feature short glimpses at the ending. This ruins the impact and feels like a strange device to form Conor’s motivation to visit the monster. It’s through little character moments that the script most succeeds. A running theme is the adult’s confusion at Conor’s sudden outbursts and uncertainty of whether to punish him. These are cleverly handled and plays into the film’s idea of what is real and what is not. The whole idea of a child escaping into fantasy is not an original one, but A Monster Calls portrays it well, especially with the sensitivity of the cancer plot.

A Monster Calls may be derivative and play directly from the British fantasy story rulebook, but J.A. Bayona manages to stitch the familiar pieces into a solid package. A film focusing on a mother having cancer always has to draw that tricky line of being both sensitive and not entering into schmaltzy territory. While the expected tears surprisingly don’t arrive, the subject is handled properly by the filmmakers. A child who is dealing and has dealt with a loss of this magnitude will find some comfort in A Monster Calls, knowing there are others facing the same difficulties.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE

Stefan Ellison