The Power of Storytelling in A Monster Calls
Director: J.A. Bayona Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson Running time: 108 minutes
A Monster Calls is part of the growing trend towards children’s films that don’t talk down to children, a lá Inside Out. The animated water colour storytelling sequences are inventive and truly beautiful. 2017 may have just begun, but it looks set to be a great year in film.
While A Monster Calls could easily have been dialogue driven, the visuals are striking. Bayona’s experience in horror film (The Orphanage/ El Orfanata) shines through in the tension built during scenes featuring the monster. Bayona strikes a fine balance between tension and relief throughout which moved us through the same emotional journey as Conor, you don’t often get sutured into a story aimed at kids in this way.
A Monster Calls follows Conor, a young boy who is experiencing recurring nightmares. He dreams every night that the ground at the church and graveyard overlooking his house crumbles and swallows up his terminally ill mother, and he can’t save her. The CGI during this sequence is fabulous where it easily could have been written off because it’s ‘just a dream’.
Conor is visited after this dream one night by an imposing tree monster, who spends its time during the day as the ancient Yew tree overlooking the graveyard. The monster has come to tell Conor 3 stories, the fourth will be Conor’s truth. The monster is voiced by Liam Neeson and his distinctive timbre is perfect for the outwardly intimidating but well meaning tree. It’s great to see him back out of roles in the Taken mould. Casting child actors is always a tricky business, but Lewis MacDougall gives a really convincing and nuanced portrayal of the grief and denial this young boy is going through.
I won’t spoil the film by giving away too much, but Conor’s truth and his journey towards admitting it (and MacDougall’s performance in this scene in particular) lend A Monster Calls an emotional intelligence and candour that is unfortunately absent from most Blockbuster films.
We all roll our eyes when we see a critic write the old ‘Show don’t tell’ but in the hands of a lazier director the stories in this film would have been long dialogue-heavy, over the shoulder scenes with no payoff. Does that sound like something kids want? The strength of animation in A Monster Calls makes the film. The stories themselves fail to really come together with Conor’s truth or the events at hand but they’re presented so beautifully that this can be forgiven.
While I’m always uncomfortable with fiction exploiting cancer as a plot-device, it was handled tactfully here. Felicity Jone’s character is bigger than her cancer, she is a mother, a daughter, an artist. The only major issue with A Monster Calls is that the monster’s 3rd story is a long time coming. The film fills this time with Conor moving through emotional hurdles, one of which involves facing his bullies. The ring leader is given a lot of screen time and there seems to be a slight hint that he is bullying Conor because he fancies him, but the subplot deadends.
But A Monster Calls is still the best children’s film I’ve seen in a long time, and an important one.(3.5 / 5)