Movie Review: A Monster Calls
By Matthew Huntley
January 16, 2017

O monster my monster.

A Monster Calls is not only a touching and entertaining family tale, but also, I believe, an essential one. Don't let the name or genre mislead you - this is a challenging, heartrending and surprisingly down-to-earth drama from which adults and children alike can draw many valuable lessons, some of which aren't so obvious and actually require critical thinking, deep interpretation and thoughtful discussion. This isn't something you'd expect when the title character is a ghastly, grotesque figure made up of dead branches from a yew tree.

The monster in question comes calling to 13-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall, in a remarkable performance), who's been having the same nightmare ever since his mother (Felicity Jones) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In his horrific dream, Conor is on the edge of a cliff in a cemetery, desperately trying to hold onto someone, lest they fall to their certain death. But the person he's trying to save is too heavy and Conor is losing his grip. He lies in bed, panting, sweating and eventually wakes up in utter terror.

In addition to his mother's deteriorating health, Conor must also bear the bullies at school who constantly torment him, both physically and emotionally. Plus, he has to deal with his harsh and difficult grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who's come to stay with him while his ailing mother is in the hospital, and the grandmother doesn't seem to like him very much. Meanwhile, his distant father (Toby Kebbell) doesn't exactly provide ample support - he moved away with his new family to Los Angeles and Conor often deludes himself into thinking he might be able to move there too, but he never really gets the impression his father wants him.

Conor has it rough and he feels stuck, so one night, at 12:07 a.m., a monster appears outside his window. The monster (voice of Liam Neeson), who doesn't have a name, claims that Conor summoned him, but Conor has no recollection of this and it's sort of neat that there's no concrete explanation for why or how the monster appears, he just does. What's also interesting about this particular behemoth, which bears a striking resemblance to the Ents from The Lord of the Rings and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, is that he's neither scary nor friendly. He's more of a towering disciplinarian, acting like a military general determined to get Conor to talk about his nightmare and accept a certain truth. The monster says he will tell Conor three true stories, after which Conor must tell his own, otherwise the monster will eat him.

This is no ordinary setup for a family drama, which is a good thing, but it unexpectedly adds up to a film of rich and long-lasting value, probably because Conor is such a complex, three-dimensional character with whom we can easily identify and empathize. He's not just some cute kid we feel sorry for, but a complicated young man with heavy thoughts who's prone to anger, depression and even violence. When he screams at the monster that his stories don't make any sense, we know what he means, and so we're constantly on Conor's level. We don't just feel for him, but actually feel like him.

Through various animation and special effects sequences, the film brings the monster's stories to life - the first about a prince and his supposedly evil witch of a stepmother; the second about an apothecary and a narrow-minded parson who doesn't allow the apothecary to practice medicine the way he prefers; and the third about an invisible man determined to be seen and who takes drastic action to do so. Buried within each of these narratives is a useful lesson (or perhaps lessons) that requires us to alter our perspective and assumptions, which is illustrative of the the film's overall message: to not subscribe to evaluative thinking based on a single point of view. In life, there are few certainties and we have to be open to the possibility that the way we see things is wrong and probably different from the way others see them.

That's what's so refreshing and enduring about A Monster Calls, which is based on the novel by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd: the morals of each of its stories, and the main one between Conor and the monster, aren't so clear cut. The film puts it on us to examine them from multiple angles, consider what they're saying in regards to human nature and to the specific characters, and eventually draw multiple conclusions. There are of course parallels between the monster's stories and Conor's own day-to-day struggles, but that's why the monster tells them. His objective is to help Conor (and us) learn, grow and forgive.

Director J.A. Bayona, who also helmed The Impossible and the superior horror film The Orphanage, once again shows a deep understanding of the material he's been charged with filming, especially with regards to the complexity of Conor's situation. He doesn't simplify things in order to make it easier for the audience to digest. Bayona knows Conor's burdens are common to everyone at one point or another and because he sees them as something true and universal, he doesn't cut corners or resort to contrived narrative devices just to get through them. Instead, he lets each scene play out naturally without rushing through it (I'm thinking of a particularly quiet moment when Conor goes into his room and starts flipping through the pages of a book). By the end, we've gained a real sense of Conor's pain and suffering and really listen to him when tells the monster he's just so tired. And the monster's explanation for Conor's nightmare may be short, but it's something we're all prone to forgetting.

I went into A Monster Calls completely cold and unaware of what it was about, though I assumed it was just another children's fantasy. I'm happy to report it caught me off guard, not only with its content but also its heart and recognition of the young adolescent experience. It knows how urgent, difficult and agonizing this time can be, but it respects it and this allows the film to earns its emotional payoff. Based what I learned from it, I look forward to the day I get to watch A Monster Calls with my own kids, not only because its lessons will be valuable to them, but because it's likely their interpretations of the stories will teach me even more. If ever there was a modern family picture that any family would be wise to watch together, A Monster Calls is it.