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