How do we go about dealing with our deepest fears? Do we repress them, confront them, or try and run from them? In A Monster Calls, JA Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’ universally beloved novel, the answer to this tricky question comes in the form of stories. Not until we articulate our worries can we go about tackling them, even if these explanations take an allegorical parable or three to shape them into comprehensibility. Darker fare than any of the other high-profile family films of this year, and definitely more suited to older children, A Monster Calls takes very real human fears, of both children and adults, and places them into an imaginative magic-realist world.
Bayona wastes no time in giving us a good look at the eponymous Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). A giant humanoid tree beast, he’s hardly going to be giving Groot a run for his money as the most lovable anthropomorphic plant, but he’s still magnificently designed and animated. Given how stingy films can be with their giant CG creatures, even films with a far higher budget than this, it’s refreshing to see this Monster introduced nearly immediately, without any teasing. There’s a proper thundering weight to this creation, making his interactions with 12-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall), our lead character, pleasingly tactile.
It’s Connor’s grief and anger that has brought the local yew tree to life. His mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is dying, and his attempts to escape his reality through art are picked up on by school bullies, who can sense just enough of a hint of ‘different’ that Connor becomes their favourite target. The Monster promises to tell Connor three stories that will explain the world to him, and just maybe help him fix up his small corner of it. As Connor grows more accustomed to these visitations, the Monster’s mannerisms become friendlier and more relaxed, and the subtleties which Bayona’s VFX team manage to get into the movements make for an exceptional technical display, even finding room for a modicum of physical comedy.
When the promised stories are told, Bayona switches from CG-enhanced live action to full-fledged animation, in a style very reminiscent of the Deathly Hallows story from the seventh Harry Potter film. Whilst not as stunning as that animated interlude, these tales still provide plenty of visual interest, especially when Bayona drops the photo-real Monster and Connor himself into these water-colour-esque backgrounds. They also provide a starker contrast to the ‘real world’ scenes than their HP counterparts, as Bayona and his DOP Oscar Faura shoot with arresting clarity and detail.
In the film’s first half, you miss the Monster when he’s not around, as the film struggles to find focus. Patrick Ness, adapting his own writing, is clearly attached to plenty of the elements of his book, and whilst this pride is justified, it makes for slightly scrappy viewing. Though the bully scenes provide useful context for Connor’s loneliness both in and outside of school, they’re not particularly well-executed, and you find yourself wishing that the Connor/mum relationship was more central to the early stages of the story. Once a turn for the worse in Lizzie’s health forces Connor to move in with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), things pick up fast.
Connor’s increasing fear at the loss of his mother, and his rage at the world for taking her away means that his interactions with the monster start to manifest in more and more physical ways, and a scene in which he destroys his grandmother’s living room is genuinely shocking. It’s the first scene with a real, visceral emotional impact, and though that may seem a little late, given that it’s in the second act, it’s important to note that A Monster Calls is a real slow burn. Rather than giving us constant weepy moments, it instead builds and builds to a devastating-yet-uplifting climax which had most of the cinema wiping away streams of tears.
Newcomer MacDougall is fantastic in his first real lead role, superbly conveying the conflicting feelings of a kid just about old enough to start understanding the world, but still too young to actually want this knowledge. Bayona also deserves plenty of credit for not only creating this fantastical world, but also coaxing such a good performance from MacDougall despite that fact that many of his scenes give him no fellow humans to interact with. Weaver and Jones also do great work, particularly Weaver, who is painfully recognisable as a parental figure trying to stay composed despite incredible inner turmoil, whilst Neeson’s gravelly delivery fits the Monster perfectly. It’s smart casting that makes sure that Bayona and Ness’ world comes effectively to life in a slightly manipulative but markedly powerful and grounded fairy tale.