A Monster Calls holds a unique distinction in the modern landscape of children’s cinema, in that it actually respects the intelligence of its target audience. Unfortunately the marketing team doesn’t share that sentiment, as its ad campaign misleadingly presents Monster as an uplifting tale about a bullied boy and his mom. In some ways it’s just that — but it’s also a far darker film than the trailers imply, dealing with very adult themes of loss and death. This is at once Monster’s greatest virtue and biggest problem; it’s probably a little too heavy for younger audiences and a little too simplistic for more mature ones. However, that simplicity belies an emotional nuance that may not be readily apparent at first glance.
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his award-winning YA novel — itself based on an unfinished work by Siobhan Dowd, who succumbed to cancer before the book could be completed — Monster deals with an introverted young Irish boy who withdraws into a fantasy world when faced with the impending death of his mother. If there’s nothing particularly original about the premise of a child struggling with social pressures and the harsh realities of an unforgiving world, the film goes in visual and narrative directions that are compelling in the simultaneity of their inventiveness and classicism.
Our preadolescent protagonist Connor, played with a minimum of objectionable missteps by Lewis MacDougall, is confronted with genre-standard conflicts ranging from classroom bullying to an overbearing grandmother that will soon become his primary caregiver, no thanks to his absentee man child of a dad (Toby Kebble). But the crux of this story harkens back to traditional fairy tale logic rather than contemporary YA tripe, and therein lies the strength of the film.
As Connor clings to hope that his mother (Felicity Jones, turning in a heart-rending performance almost unrecognizable in comparison to her leading turn as Jyn Erso in Rogue One) will miraculously recover and that he’ll avoid the fate of living with his stern grandma (an unfortunately accented Sigourney Weaver), he encounters a magical yew tree that rises up in humanoid from a nearby churchyard to visit every night like a gruff, but benevolent, Ent.
Voiced with gravely gravitas by Liam Neeson, the tree monster offers up parables with a peculiarly Irish sort of recursive logic, designed to help young Connor tap into the wisdom and maturity that will see him through his existential crisis. Each story is presented as an animated vignette, visually taking on the characteristics of watercolor illustrations that will prove to be particularly significant in the film’s closing scenes. By the time the true meaning of these tales are revealed in the third act, the film has taken on a level of significance and frankness that is far from apparent in the movie’s promotional material.
The monster is a truly impressive feat of effects wizardry, and the interstitial animated segments are genuinely beautiful works in and of themselves. Dirrector J.A. Bayona wears his influences on his sleeve, referencing Harryhausen’s King Kong early and often. However, he also displays an admirable aptitude for CG spectacle that should serve him well when he helms the next Jurassic World picture. Monster is a visually ambitious film, but those ambitions are at the service of a narrative purpose that more than justifies the cinematic grandiosity on display.
Not since Val Lewton and Jaques Tourneur delved into the imaginal mindscape of childhood in Curse of the Cat People has a film so successfully addressed the unique difficulties inherent to the psychology of children. And like that film, A Monster Calls will likely be of interest to families well beyond the average lifespan of other movies targeted at a similar demographic. It’s not exactly a feel good film — and might not be the best casual fare for passing an idle afternoon at the movies with the kids — but parents looking for a way to open a dialogue with their children about how best to address the emotional turmoil contingent with the loss of a loved one will find A Monster Calls to be a great starting point. There may be easier movies on the market right now, but few that are likely to be as valuable in years to come. Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images .
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.