An epic, emotional and affecting dark fairy tale that addresses serious questions of mortality
Pan’s Labyrinth meets The Iron Giant in this affecting and deeply melancholy tale that focuses on death, grief and guilt – you know, standard kids’ stuff.By now, we should know we’re gonna catch feelings from watching J A Bayona’s films. The director of The Orphanage and The Impossible tackles some seriously emotional stuff here in A Monster Calls, which is adapted from Patrick Ness’s children’s book of the same name. Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor O’Malley, a quiet and introverted boy who lives with his mother in rural England. Conor is a troubled kid – his mum (Felicity Jones) is dying, he doesn’t get on with his grandma (Sigourney Weaver) who’s becoming more and more involved in his life, he’s bullied at school and his dad (Toby Kebbell) has a new family in America. It doesn’t take too long for Bayona to pull out some of the creepy horror movie conventions he used in The Orphanage.As Conor sits alone past midnight in his room, his pencils begin rolling across the floor and before long the gigantic monster of the film’s title (voiced by Liam Neeson) is calling to Conor from the graveyard outside his window. The monster appears to Conor each night at 12:07, and through the course of the film tells him three tales and asks for Conor to tell him his ‘truth’ in return. The monster’s tales are illustrated in lush and beautiful technicolour, and are just a few of the moments in the film in which the skill of the visual effects team is staggering. The tales and the fantastical monster are interwoven with Conor’s all-too visceral and realistic reality, as he flits between schoolyard beatings, cold hospital corridors and lonely bedrooms.
The film, and the book it’s based on, are meditations on grief, and the effect of losing a parent at a young age. The screenplay is adapted by Ness from his own book, and there are a few lines of dialogue that feel a bit clunky, as though the almost oppressive seriousness of the story has gotten in the way. It’s an overwhelmingly deep film, and though there are a few attempts at humour, it’s a pretty dark way to spend a couple of hours. It’s definitely worth it though – the score by Fernando Velázquez is perfectly emotive, Óscar Faura’s cinematography is beautiful, Bayona’s mix of fairytale and dark drama are perfectly mixed, and MacDougall’s performance is one for the ages.
Weaver – pretty weak British accent aside – is strong and stoic as Conor’s despised grandma, Kebbell makes the most of a small role as the conflicted father, and Jones is affecting and perfectly pitched as Lizzie, who spends the vast majority of the film lying prone in a hospital bed. Neeson’s dulcet tones are absolutely perfect for the mighty tree-monster, who’s comforting and menacing in equal measure. Good performances from the ensemble aside though, all the attention should be paid to MacDougall, who manages to contain all of Conor’s anger, resentment, fear and sadness in one look, and is able to switch seamlessly from one to the next.
Bayona’s next film will no doubt have an astronomical graphics budget (he’s due to helm the fifth instalment of the Jurassic Park series), but he and his crew make the most of every opportunity for effects here. The monster itself is an incredible sight, a mix of fiery innards, a mass of contracting branches and pair of gigantic, intensely human eyes. The film’s most visually striking effects are reserved for Conor’s recurring nightmare, which forms part of the emotionally-wrenching ending.
By blending the bleak reality of human mortality with the magical quality of fairy tales, the film tells a story that’s emotional for kids and adults alike
Were it not for Conor’s MP3 player, the film could almost be timeless – the costumes and sets seem familiar, and are all matched to the melancholy mood that pervades all of the film. Above all, it’s a film about universal human emotion that’s not tied to any particular time or place. It’s difficult to know whether to call this a children’s film or not – there’s an almost weird mix of childishness and seriousness. The fairy tale stories the monster tells are reminiscent of many Disney films, and have a pedagogical quality found in most kids’ movies, but the morals they contain (“humans are conflicted creatures”) seem too complex for most younger viewers.
The subject matter (cancer, death, grief) is also pretty intense, but in blending the bleak reality of human mortality with the magical quality of fairy tales, Bayona and Ness manage to tell a story that’s really emotional for kids and adults alike. There are times when the film’s in danger of falling into the formulaic coming-of-age/troubled childhood pattern, and there are times when the story’s arc seems almost unbearably trite – but stick with it. The emotional payoff and the achingly clever way grief is woven into a fairy tale narrative will make it worth it, I swear.
It’s probably not one to take your young children to, and it’s tough to really pick a target audience for the film. This is definitely worth watching though, particularly if you like to have a good cry at the cinema. Visually stunning, Bayona makes the most of a breathtaking performance from MacDougall to tell a hugely emotional story in a truly innovative way. Definitely not a light-hearted kids fantasy, A Monster Calls is nonetheless a properly epic, emotional and affecting dark fairy tale that addresses so many serious questions that Hollywood rarely has the guts to take on.
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