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The monster does not come walking often. This time it comes to Connor, and it asks for the one thing Connor cannot bring himself to do. Tell the truth. This is a very touching story about a boy who feels very damaged, guilty and mostly angry. He struggles at school with bullies, and pity looks from everyone, and at home with his mother's sickness. Will Connor overcome his problems? Will everything be okay? Will Connor be able to speak the truth?
IN BRIEF: A visually stunner caught up in the undergrowth of its own conventional storytelling.
SYNOPSIS: A child suffers the harsh realities of life and retreats to another world.
JIM'S REVIEW: J. A. Bayona's A Monster Calls is a visually imaginative downer of a tale about a young boy who must learn to cope with grief. Based on the award-winning children's book by Patrick Ness and adapted by the author himself, the film uses animation and live action to tell its tale of woe. The results of this dark tale are enlightened by stylish direction and a highly effective performance by newcomer. Lewis MacDougall.
Mr. MacDougall plays Conor O'Malley whose life is filled with too many harsh realities: a mother suffering from terminal cancer (Felicity Jones), a distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and a more distant father (Toby Kebbell), a cruel bully (James Melville). Real life offers no solitude, so Conor retreats to an imaginary world which brings with it a giant yew monster (Liam Neeson). During his visits, the tree creature provides some respite for Conor. He gives him sage advice by telling some stories to help this child through the darkness to find some solace in the real world.
￼A Monster Calls is more of an allegory and the film's narrative structure uses the format of interspersing animated vignettes as parables to the parallel story of Conor and his terminally-ill mother. Yes, the film is manipulative from the start, with its undeniable melodramatic set-up and ultimately tragic conclusion. The real world story is dull and so relentless in its brooding melancholia compared to the free-spirited other worldly realm and, at times, this reviewer wanted to stay in the latter. But the filmmakers treat their serious subject with such dignity and honesty, avoiding the maudlin and sentimental for the most part. There is so much to admire about Mr. Bayona's film. (The subject is not an easy task to sell to the general public. Not surprisingly, the movie is doing lackluster business in the States, although globally it is doing well. Nowadays, American moviegoers are looking to escape reality, such like the main character.)
Technically, the film soars. From Oscar Fuura's stunning photography to Fernando Velazquez's haunting music score, the film looks death squarely in the face and celebrates life. Seamlessly edited by Benat Vilplana and Jaume Marti, A Monster Calls uses its sumptuous visuals to its advantage. With swirls of bright watercolor washes adding a vibrancy to the film's story-within- a story format, the film efficiently contrasts the real from the unreal. Kudos to director Bayona and his team of artisans on their handling of this delicate theme.
The lead performances are all first-rate, Mr. Neeson voices the Monster perfectly and his motion capture performance is wonderful and so heartfelt. Ms. Jones brings superb understatement to her role as Conor's sickly parent. Her chemistry with Mr. MacDougall seems genuine and authentic. This young actor, in his film debut, is remarkable and runs the full gamut of emotions without one false note. Providing supporting work in their rather stock roles are Ms. Weaver and Mr. Kebbell who are merely serviceable, possibly due to the writing and characters.
￼A Monster Calls is indeed a Grimm tale, but one that deserves your attention. And be forewarned, bring a hankie with you.
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