Films are rarely able to pull off, if they bother to attempt at all, the triple treat of having a sense of wonder, a sense of purpose, and being entertainment for the entire family, boasting technical mastery, and rhythms within their stories that invite return visits, to experience the magic all over again. Usually one thinks of Spielberg, or at least older Spielberg, especially when it comes to a “young boy and his [fill in the blank]” movies (add aliens, robots, fantasies, monsters), espousing themes that if we want to travel further back, can be traced to François Truffaut’s early films of the late fifties and early sixties, specifically with The 400 Blows and Jules Et Jim. No doubt Spielberg, and this cinematic lineage, was a huge inspiration on director Juan Antonio Bayona and his visualization of Patrick Ness’s novel (from an idea by the late British activist and author Siobhan Dowd) A Monster Calls, about a teenage boy visited by a giant monster who grows out of a neighboring Yew tree, to help him through a family tragedy. What he has created is simply breathtaking, an enduring masterpiece that never once neglects its medium for cloying sentimentality or abrasive clichés that trap many of Spielberg’s modern imitators.
Teenager Connor O’Malley has a lot to deal with in his small English town, and A Monster Calls wastes no time establishing his hardships. His mother is stricken with terminal cancer, classmates and teachers treat him like he’s invisible because of her condition, he is incessantly bullied by a peer, his father is completely detached, living a life in the United States with his new family, and his relationship with his domineering grandmother is strained. For a boy his age it’s difficult enough to make sense out of any one of those things, let alone find a way to live with them all. Into this volatile existence comes a monster, visiting him every night at 12:07 A.M. to share stories that attempt to approximate the contradictions found in life that people struggle with, to help Connor accept what he cannot change while growing into a young man. Heavy stuff for sure, admittedly dark and depressing at times, but it never once condescends to the audience, or tries to soften the blow with cuteness or pat sentimentality, as is the case with much garden-variety Hollywood offerings.
A Monster Calls benefits from its global pedigree, from the English roots of its author, to Spanish director Bayona, who no doubt draws on his early experience in the horror genre, and more recently with his masterful film The Impossible, about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Despite the gravity of this film, its rhythms and perspective are not that far removed from Hollywood, whether due to the momentum created by the give and take of the monster’s stories, alternating with bits of narrative, or the intimate point of view of O’Malley, surrounded by a world much bigger than himself that he struggles to find his way through. In that sense A Monster Calls is undeniably watchable, and welcomes repeat viewings. Bayona taps into the energies and youthful exuberance of O’Malley, which aid in the film’s growing sense of awe and wonder, adopting extreme close ups of drawing pencils and crayons, shaking on their tables whenever the monster is stirring to life outside, relishing the build-up and subsequent unveiling of the beast conjured up from the depths of his imagination.
The acting and direction is superb. Young Lewis MacDougall is exceptional as Connor, displaying maturity beyond his years, and never betraying the severity of his personal journey. The adults in the film are not given much screen time, or heft to their roles, but they do not disappoint. Sigourney Weaver, as the grandmother, is all stoic, steely resolve, while allowing subtle cracks in her armor as she has the dual role of being yet another inscrutable obstacle for Connor, while at the same time she must show pain and sadness over the turns her daughter’s illness has taken. Felicity Jones, on the heels of her torturous, action figure presence in Rogue One, exhibits grace and tenderness in the jaws of defeat, remaining the sole light in Connor’s world while grappling with her terrible disease. And Liam Neeson, as the voice of the monster, provides his familiar, reassuring tone while imparting sage wisdom, suggesting he could have a great secondary career in voice-over work. Accompanying his voice are examples of the film’s incredible sound design, breathing life to his monster through the cracking and twisting of tree limbs and the roaring fire inside that mirrors his intensity, and together they form a pretty awesome spectacle that makes each visit, and each story told, a much anticipated event.
There is a sense, with these actors and this storyline, that A Monster Calls comes from some other place, and some other time, unlike many of the films we are used to stateside. This only feeds the film’s uniqueness, and ability to stand alongside the greats in this vein. The novel by Patrick Ness is a very quick read, and his screenplay sacrifices nothing through the adaptation, and Bayona makes sure that the images are worthy of the words on the page, which will become the definitive pictures in the minds of any new readers. The film is a whirlwind of delights, and constant innovation, as the monster’s stories are all told through painted animation courtesy of Glassworks Barcelona, creating a visual feast for the eyes as well as the heart. J. A. Bayona elegantly captures that period in a young boy’s life where innocence becomes responsibility, while upholding a sense of awe-inspiring wonder. A Monster Calls is the reason we all go to the movies, to escape the everyday but then to face it head-on, through a deeply moving display of real characters and real lives, sometimes doing fantastic, magical things. A Monster Calls is a film I’d happily share with my children when they are old enough, and one that I am sure to revisit, not unlike Spielberg’s many films from my childhood, that ignite similar pangs of nostalgia.
The Verdict: Rave