From J.A. Bayona, director of The Impossible, A Monster Calls is about Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy who lives with his terminally ill mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) and who often gets bullied at school. When Lizzie begins to take a turn for the worse, he is made to go and live with his aloof grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and soon, he is visited by an enormous tree “monster” (voiced by Liam Neeson) who tells him a series of allegorical tales, with the intent of getting Conor to deal with what he is going through.
A Monster Calls is clearly a film with a theme and a message: coping with the potential loss of a loved one and this is achieved through somewhat familiar means, through the deterioration of a pivotal character and the emotional mother/son scenes, but the fantasy element and allegorical tales successfully set it apart from other, similar films. The fables that
Treebeard the monster tells are certainly insightful and thoughtful, helping to give the film a certain depth and unique quality and the script is intelligent and mature, exploring the issues relating to loss (Conor does seem to go through the five stages of grief) very well. Everything is brought together very effectively by the end as the tales’ significance start to make sense and Conor’s character development comes to a satisfying conclusion.
The artwork in this film is excellent and the drawings and paintings that we see throughout are striking and imaginative. In particular, the animation of monster’s tales is wonderful and these scenes are definitely a highlight of the film. And of course, the design of
Groot the monster itself is spot-on, really quite scary at certain points with its flaming red eyes and at other times, quite serene and grandfatherly. The score by Fernando Velázquez is also great, illiciting emotion from the audience whilst never veering into mawkishness or emotional manipulation.
However, the leading performance of Lewis MacDougall is unfortunately quite uncertain and laboured. He doesn’t give a terrible performance, a few times I was able to empathize with him, but his delivery is forced and his uneven acting kept me from being fully invested in the story. The main empathetic performance comes from Felicity Jones and I can’t help but feel that if the main character of Conor was just a bit more likable, or if MacDougall gave a more genuine performance, then the film would be taken to a whole new level of greatness.
Also, the casting of Sigourney Weaver as the thick-accented English grandmother was too much of an odd choice, another aspect that ultimately kept me at arm’s length from the emotional core and the relationship between Conor and the bully was a bit too weird.
An affecting, mature, inventive film with powerful themes and excellent design.
★ ★ ★ ★