Director: J. A. Bayona
Screenplay: Patrick Ness
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson
Runtime: 108 Minutes
A Monster Calls is the latest fantasy drama to join to ranks of metaphorical coming-of-age stories. The most obvious comparison might be made with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are; a terrifically understated picture that made flesh the inner turmoil of a young boy who is afraid of leaving his childhood behind in an increasingly dark and confusing world. Director J. A. Bayona’s film uses a similar approach to its material, but on a far darker level, as the young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) struggles to come to terms with his mother Lizzie’s (Felicity Jones) terminal cancer diagnosis.
This is a dark and rather difficult story to try and paint in an entertaining light, but it’s tackled by a means of storytelling to condense and unpack the fury of emotions on show. The Monster of the title is the ancient yew of the graveyard near Conor’s home, performed and voiced by Liam Neeson, which plucks itself from the ground at night to visit Conor and tell him stories envisaged by some nice-looking watercolour-like effects - the reason why being one of the film’s signature reveals; a poignant and dim message about the contrast between reality and fiction. The young Lewis MacDougall is pretty fantastic for his first leading role, and his rapport with the older performers, in particular, a fabulously cast Liam Neeson, is really effective.
J. A. Bayona has proven himself a hearty technician as a filmmaker, which bodes well for his upcoming work on the next Jurassic World sequel. There’s a confidence in the organisation of imagery and unique visual tricks, while seamlessly integrating computer-generated imagery into practical sets and green screen composites – the Monster itself is a gorgeously designed creation with a fabulous sound design to its creaking, wheezing structure. It’s bold and colourful, but maintains a workable colour pallet in its real-world environments to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and when they collide there are wonderful moments where the film’s magic-realist perceptions come to life.
Author Patrick Ness (from an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd) takes his first stab at screenwriting here, but exposes a mortal weakness. The Monster chiefly exists as a mechanism for heavy expositional dumps, as he explains in crippling detail the meaning and purpose of every exchange, continuously regurgitating the same messages that ‘life is not like a storybook’ and ‘human beings are complicated’. This works fine in theory as its speaking from a child’s perspective, but feels like its talking down to the audience that it’s aiming at.
There are also character’s that could certainly do with a greater deal of depth. The bully who targets Conner feels like little more than a plot device with little reasoning, and save for a yet another terrifically understated performance from Felicity Jones, Lizzie receives little actual character insight beyond the glorified image that Conor sees her as. The shining light in his universe that is about to go out seems to work emblematically, but even while working in a real-world context she still comes across as someone without much definition.
The entire film builds to a rather definite and preordained climax, and pays off with the requisite amount of emotion given its tremendous amount of build up – even if that is all that is finally there. It operates with all the narrative and emotionally subtly of a sledgehammer, but the visual storytelling is pretty and stimulating enough to digest its emotionally boiling sentiments. Even if A Monster Calls is somewhat safer than it thinks it is, it’s admirable to see any family film tackling the subject matter with as much gusto as this.