A Monster Calls FILM REVIEW
“Stories are wild things,” says the talking tree at the centre of this film in Liam Neeson’s booming voice. “Who know what havoc they might wreak if we set them free?”
Well, watching A Monster Calls they certainly play havoc with your tear ducts.
Don’t mistake this film for a full-on schmaltz-fest like ET or Bridge To Terabithia. Or even the exquisitely crafted heartache of Pixar’s finest (Up, Toy Story 3, Finding [insert fish here]). A Monster Calls, despite having Spanish director, feels like it comes from a long tradition of British ’tween angst screen fiction that stretches right back to Kes (1969). Hell, the film’s star, Lewis MacDougall, gives young Connor such a haunted, hollow-eyed sense of isolation, that he could happily slot into a Ken Loach film if he sounded a bit more northern.
Okay, it has a talking tree. That’s not very Loach. But you know the way some sci-fi and fantasy directors and actors in press interviews will play down a film’s fantasy elements, trying to convince you that it’s really a relationship drama instead? Well, in this case they’d have a point. A Monster Calls is less about story about a boy called Connor who meets a talking yew tree; rather it’s a story about a boy coming to a moment of self-realisation. The talking tree is pretty much a catalyst.
But one hell of a catalyst. A superbly crafted, brilliantly designed, magnificently voiced catalyst who casually bats away expectations by delivering a series of moral tales of dubious morality. In another incarnation of the script, Connor could be helped on his emotional journey by a trendy school counsellor, but that would be a very dull film.
Patrick Ness has adapted the script from his own novel (based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd), which centres on a boy dealing with his mother’s cancer. His dad now lives in America with his new family, and his mother’s frequent absences for treatment mean he has to stay with his dreaded grandma (Sigourney Weaver) in her museum-like house: a minefield of china ornaments and family heirlooms just waiting to get smashed. At school he’s bullied, but even the bullies are losing interest in him. He’s besoming a ghost in his own life.
So when he starts being visited by a talking tree in what he assumes are his dreams, he believes it’s here to help save his mother. But the tree just wants to tell stories. And very odd stories they are too.
You may see where this is going. It doesn’t matter if you do because the path there will keep surprising you. Fairy tale clichés are turned on their head. The tree’s tales certainly don’t conform to classic legendary tropes. And Sigourney Weaver deserves an Oscar for subtly shifting her character from the evil stepmother role she initially appears to fulfil into something else. (Okay, she’s technically a grandmother, not a stepmother, but you’ll see what we mean.)
The changes to the book feel more like on-theme cinematic embellishments; certainly this screen version means the monster’s tales can be gorgeously brought to life via some beautiful watercolour-influenced animated sequences.
The only slight problem with the film is the grimness is pretty much unrelenting. Usually in films like this there’ll be a section where the hero has some fun in their newfound fantastic situation – testing out their powers or bonding amusingly with their newfound supernatural pal – before everything goes wrong. But there’s only one scene in A Monster Calls in which the monster’s relationship with Connor could be said to produce anything approaching a joyous moment for the boy, and even that’s immediately turned on its head when Connor realises exactly what he’s done. This leads to the film’s finest moment – a quiet shot of a boy trying to cope with a reaction he did not expect and does not know how to handle – but it’s not exactly a Pixar-style punch-the-air moment. Not that it’s trying to be, but this tone – and some of the film’s more subtle allusions – may leave some younger kids in the audience a little underwhelmed.
On the other hand, some more mischievous kids could happily misread one of the film’s messages as a license to inflict pain and indulge in wanton destruction; frustrated parent may be required to explain the meaning of irony.
Throughout, JA Boyona’s direction is spot on. Visually the film is an absolute treat, but his pacing and the performances he gets from his cast are equally assured. And while the fantasy sequences are breathtaking, he also manages to find a quiet beauty in the sodden muddiness of a rain-soaked nondescript slice of rural England.
There are two children’s films with monster in the title on release at cinemas at the moment. Just make sure you don’t go and see the wrong one. Because A Monster Calls is as wonderful as Monster Trucks is downright awful.
Review by Dave Golder