A MONSTER CALLS
Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson
MPAA Rating: (for thematic content and some scary images)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 12/23/16 (limited); 1/6/17 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 5, 2017
The method overpowers the message in A Monster Calls, a well-meaning fable about a boy dealing with the impending death of his mother. For one thing, the story is itself a fable about how important fables can be in understanding things that are beyond us. It's a story about the potential greatness of stories, which is also a good lesson, although it's one that seems a bit trivial in the face of a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying a slow and painful death.
The boy is Conor (a very good Lewis MacDougall). His mother (played by Felicity Jones) has cancer and is preparing to undergo chemotherapy treatment. Conor is a friendless loner at school, and he's routinely insulted, intimidated, and occasionally attacked by a group of bullies. His father (played by Toby Kebbell) has moved to California, where he has another family, and only rarely visits his son. Conor's maternal grandmother (played by Sigourney Weaver) has come to help around the house, and Conor cannot stand the woman's strict and orderly ways.
The point of all of this is that the boy, as far as he is concerned, is alone. Only his mother understands him, and she likely will be gone soon. Before then, she sleeps, exhausted from the treatment, for most of the day and night, except when she becomes ill from the side effects.
These details are pieced together throughout Patrick Ness' screenplay (based on his novel), because, right from the start, the movie's human element takes a backseat to its fantastical material. From Conor's bedroom window, he can see a church, its cemetery, and a tall yew tree. He has a nightmare about the yard opening up underneath his mother's feet, leaving him to hold on to her hand.
One night while the boy is drawing in his room, the house begins to rumble and shake. The tree has come to life—its trunk split into legs and branches forming arms and hands—and is approaching Conor's house.
The monster, motion-captured from and voiced by Liam Neeson, has three stories to tell Conor over the course of three different night. After the tree tells its trio of stories, it wants Conor to tell it one.
The monster is an effective and impressive visual effect. As a character, though, it is mostly a thing of convenience. It is never in doubt that this creature is a figment of the boy's imagination, coming and going as it pleases—or, better, as Connor needs, based on what's happening to him at the time. There are, then, really no stakes involved in its presence here (The monster says it will eat Conor if his story isn't true, but that's not much of a threat when it comes from the figment of a boy's imagination). It also adds a layer of falseness between us and Conor's experience.
The monster really exists solely for the fables it tells, and as a storyteller, the tree is something of a joker who enjoys riddles. The stories, of olden times involving kings and princes and witches and parsons and apothecaries, play out as fairy tales with seemingly obvious morals (Director J.A. Bayona presents them as animated watercolors, which, like the tree, is both an impressive effect and, ultimately, a distraction from what's actually happening here). The tree then shows up within its own tales, and what seems like a straightforward story about good and evil contradicts Conor's expectations.
In case we're lost, the tree explains the point. In case we're not sure what this has to do with Conor, Ness makes a semi-direct connection between the tales and Conor's life. The witch is akin to his grandmother, and the story of an invisible man who wants to be seen is a lot like the boy's experience at school. There are times when the monster "possesses" Conor, primarily when he rages against his grandmother's sense of cleanliness or retaliates against the cruelty of a bully.
It's all Conor, of course, but Ness' structural trickery and Bayona's visual wizardry constantly keep distancing us from the real story here. It may be intentional, since Conor himself is trying to keep reality at bay, but it goes beyond the character's way of thinking of his situation. The entire movie is structured and presented in such a way to remove itself from reality. Conor's mother barely figures into the story once her health begins to worsen. Whatever the boy feels about this is kept, apparently, even from himself.
That's because Ness' screenplay embraces the monster's fondness for riddles. There is a point to the creature's stories that is more than what the monster says each one is about. In other words, there is—as one might expect from a story about stories and the lessons we garner from them—a bigger lesson here, and it's one that hits upon a harsh truth in regards to the complex ways that people deal with the cruelty of prolonged illness. In the end, A Monster Calls is about that truth. The unfortunate part is that it is about that only at the end.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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