A Monster Calls Review
HOW DOES THE
STORY BEGIN (AND END)?
Does art reflect life or does life reflect art? Such is the case in bring the tale of A Monster Calls to life. While Patrick Ness is considered to be author of the book, the original creator mind this inspirational tale was Irish author Siobhan Dowd. She was already an establish author, with four books written, before beginning on her fifth book titled A Monster Calls, Unfortunately, Dowd, who was battling with breast cancer (a similar trait to a character in A Monster Calls), passed away on August 21st, 2007, leaving her fifth book unfinished. After some dealings, Patrick Ness took up the mantle to complete Dowd’s work. As he states “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time”. Finishing up her work and accompanied with book illustrations from Jim Kay, Patrick Ness released A Monster Calls in 2011. Since its release, the book has received critical and literary acclaim from the general public as well as winning several awards. Now, years later, Patrick Ness, director J. A. Bayona, and Focus Features presents the cinematic representation of Ness and Dowd’s work in the new movie A Monster Calls. Does this movie find its emotional connection from its literary source material or does it fail to capture it altogether?
Set in England, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a young adolescent teen facing a grim future after his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), starts to her longtime battle with cancer, while facing constant bullying from school boy classmate Harry (James Melville). Unable to cope and process his current situation, Conor lashes out at those who are working to help him through this trying time, including his distant Grandma (Sigourney Weaver), who doesn’t know how to handle the boy’s needs and his absentee dad (Toby Kebbell), who now lives in the United States with his own family, having a difficult time to what his biological son truly wants. Upset with everything, Conor finds an unusual companion in The Monster (Liam Nesson), a giant creature made from ancient yew tree who visits the distraught boy at a special time of day (12:07), sharing three tales of previous encounters with a twisted and perplexed people. Baffled by his arrival, Conor soon begins to rely on The Monster for life lessons and empowerment, facing frustration from his Grandma, disappointment from his dad, and sadness from his mother (Lizzie), whose slow death weighs heavily on the boy. However, Conor greatest challenge is to be revealed as The Monsters speaks of a fourth tale to be told, one that Conor must confront in sharing his darkest nightmare and speaks the truth to what he truly yearns for.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I did some research into finding out about Siobhan Dowd, which was quite interesting to learn about and also quite sad. Unfortunately, I never had the chance (or rather the time) to read A Monster Calls. Yes, I work at a bookstore and I see the book there all the time, but, with me being a bit backed up in my “to read books”, I never got a chance to read the book before seeing the movie. Anyway, I remember hearing about Liam Nesson being attached to a movie about “a monster something”, but I didn’t hear much after that. It wasn’t until I saw the second movie trailer, is when I became really curious about the movie (and its original novel source material). Originally, the movie was going to be released in October 2016, but was pushed back, with a limited release on December 23rd, 2016, but getting a wider release on January 6th, 2017, which is when I saw it. From what how it looked and from what I was hearing about the story, I had an idea of what A Monster Calls was going to be about (pre-idea thought of being similar to the book / movie A Bridget to Terabithia). After seeing, the movie, I felt that A Monster Calls is a remarkable and touching story about finding hope in grief.
A Monster Calls is directed by J. A. Bayona (Juan Antonio García Bayona), whose previous work includes The Orphanage and The Impossible, which also starred Liam Nesson. From what I heard (since I haven’t read the book), Bayona does take certain small liberties from the novel, but still retains the most of the narrative’s moving story. Throughout the course of the movie, many viewers will immediately identify with several familiar ideas, relationships, and storytelling arcs in A Monster Calls. However, Bayona, while not really breaking new ground, does find the film’s strength in exploring the current situation of grief and fear, without compromising the film nor its emotional narrative. This also plays an important part in the film’s greatest attribute, which is that the film (A Monster Calls) feels truly genuine and rooted in its emotional integrity. Yes, the movie does with some pretty hard-hitting stuff with grief, loss, and troubled times and does become quite a tear-jerker by the film’s third act. However, Bayona doesn’t allow the film to become sappy (like a Nicholas Spark’s film adaption), delivering raw and powerful sentiments towards the characters and the narrative, without feeling manipulative or manufactured. As a side-note, Patrick Ness also lends a hand on the movie, acting as the film’s screenplay writer, which is kind of a good thing.
In terms of filmmaking, Bayona does an exceptional job who is joined by his frequent cinematographer collaborator Oscar Faura for visually enriching the film with a storybook like setting, despite the film being mostly grounded in real world drama. Still, the fantasy elements that enter A Monster Calls do truly shine and are a highlight of the film. Inspired by the book’s illustrator (Jim Kay), these scenes are awesome, seeing the storybook-like interpretations of The Monster’s three tales come to life and have their own distinct look and feel to them. It won’t rival any Disney / Pixar animation, but it doesn’t need to and is beautiful its own right, gorgeously portraying images (via Conor’s imagination) of The Monster’s tales. In addition, the way that The Monster is rendered in the film is almost quite impressive, seeing a titular giant humanoid monster stomping around is something to behold on-screen. It doesn’t seem hokey or cheesy in the movie as The Monster visually brought to life through some beautiful CG effects as well as some larger-than-life practical effects for Lewis MacDougall (Conor) to interact with. Like the character, The Monster is both terrifying and also comforting, a juxtapose thought of what Conor is dealing with in his mother’s illness. Lastly, the film’s musical score, composed by Fernando Velázquez, is also great, swooning and swelling through tender moments and add to enrich the story throughout the film’s journey.
As a bit of a cautionary warning to viewers, A Monster Calls isn’t made for the younger crowd or the sensitive viewer. Despite the film revolving around a young adolescent boy, a giant tree monster, and some fantasy-esque storytelling elements, A Monster Calls does touch upon some darker tones and heavy situations that may not be too much for some young viewers. Even Patrick Ness points out (about the book) that it may not appropriate for some viewers, especially those who aren’t mature enough to handle such material. At my bookstore (where I work at), A Monster Calls is located in our Teen section (ages 13-18). Thus, parents or guardians should approach the movie A Monster Calls in the same way as the book, regardless of its fantasy nuances, it still deals with pretty poignant and powerful situations that young adolescent children may not be ready to handle. Just a friendly precaution.
If I really had to drum up some negative criticism for this movie, I would say that my one complaint (and it’s a minor one) is some of the film’s side-stories. Conor is the film’s main protagonist, finding the wayward youth interacting and facing several obstacles (local kids and adults) that he must overcome. That being said, some of the side-stories, especially Conor’s absentee dad, aren’t fully brought into the foreground as much as it could’ve been. However, it didn’t really bother me as much as I was (and I’m assume viewers are) are most interested in Conor’s story rather than the side sub-plot storylines.
Since A Monster Calls follows the story of Conor O’Malley, it just as equally important for Bayona to find strong representation of Conor in his cinematic film of Ness’s book. Thankfully, he does, finding a gifted and strong performance in young 14-year-old actor Lewis MacDougall. As a young actor, MacDougall, whose only previous work includes the 2015 film Pan (he played the character Nibs in the movie) faces difficult challenges in this movie, including conversing with giant CGI character as well as conveying some pretty heart-rending moments with some pretty heavy emotions. Luckily, MacDougall pulls it off in extraordinary fashion (showcasing brave and vulnerable moments) vividly) in his role of Conor and certainly does carry the film. Not bad for it being his sophomore role in a theatrical film. Speaking of his CGI co-star, actor Liam Nesson did both the voice of The Monster and did the motion capture performance for the lumbering behemoth tree monster (with MacDougall present to act off of). Nesson natural’s voice can be heard in The Monster, which is just lowered and a bit distorted (think a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy), and does it fit The Monster, bringing the sense of powerful gravitas and ancient wisdom to the titular character.
The film’s supporting cast is relatively small, but each one is given meaty roles to play throughout the movie as each one of the talented actors is given a heartfelt and sincere performances towards their respective roles. Just coming off from her role as Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Felicity Jones plays Lizzie, Conor’s mom, and plays the role great in a character that serves as an emotional link to the movie (behind Conor). Of course, Jones is up to the task, providing the right amount of acting subtle to imbue the character of Lizzie with the right amount of emotional pain and heartbreak. The same with Sigourney Weaver who plays Conor’s grandmother, finding the 67-year-old actress up to the challenge to play such a poignant supporting character in the film. Next is actor Toby Kebbell, who plays Conor’s dad. Personally, Kebbell does better when he’s playing a CG motion-capture character (see his roles in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Warcraft), but Kebbell does give a surprisingly good performance in A Monster Calls, displaying the character arc of a conflicted father figure, who kind of doesn’t know how to fully handle this current situation with Conor and Lizzie. Lastly, in a very small-ish role is young actor James Melville, who plays Harry, a local school classmate of Conor who targets and torments the boy. Melville’s acting is fine (nothing wrong with it), playing the stereotypical school bully archetype, but Harry just more of plot point to Conor’s frustration rather than fully fledged side-character.
Conor face his grief, with the aid of giant monster (and his three tales) in the movie A Monster Calls. Director J. A. Bayona newest film shows a very moving tale of a boy and his mother and the hardships that the boy must face and ultimately come to terms with. Creative fantasy elements do paint the edges of this very “human” story, but doesn’t overpower it and the cast is natural gifted to bring out the very best of these fictional characters. Though some of the side-stories don’t quite fully pan out well, the movie retains a powerful narrative that gets a satisfying and emotional payoff by film’s ending. Personally, I really liked this movie. It was touching, moving, inspiring, and quite compelling. I may even read the book, despite already knowing the film’s ending. Thus, I would highly recommend to this movie, especially those who face such difficult times as Conor does, but (just as caution) this movie may be bit too dark for younger viewers and maybe too taxing for the more sensitive viewers, who were drawn to the movie by its marketing promos. Still, imaginative and thought-provoking, A Monster Calls succeeds in bring Siobhan Dword’s original concept to the big screen, presenting a visual representation of a tale of hope and fear in the time of facing heartfelt grief.
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: January, 7th, 2017
Reviewed On: January 9th, 2017
A Monster Calls runs 108 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images