Film review by Jason Day of the fantasy A Monster Calls about a bullied boy and a tree monster, starring Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones.
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Teenager Conor (Lewis MacDougal) is having a tough time. Bullied at High School by the vicious Harry (James Melville), he has the added stress of dealing with his beloved single mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness that is slowly robbing the two of any joy left in life. His brittle, emotionally distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and feckless but loving father (Toby Kebbel) who lives in Los Angeles with a new wife and child only compound his misery. Then one day, Conor’s emotional state conjures up a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who threatens Conor with tough love to deal with the situation life has dealt him, by relating three stories. The fourth story will be Conor’s ultimate nightmare, one he has hitherto tried to avoid.
Review, by Jason Day
I really have to stop watching such tear-jerking movies. If anything, I’m out of tears and am left an emotional wreck when I leave the cinema, wobbling weak-kneed and blinking into the stark lights of the cinema auditorium.
It can’t be good on an old critic’s dicky-ticker. Films like Lion, A United Kingdom and Arrival don’t so much tug on the heart-strings, they play them like a harp from hell, wrench them from their roots and then lob them unceremoniously in the bin.
Is cinema lapsing into a state of deep melancholy, then?
Did movie producers anticipate last year the shit-storm that 2016 would become, in all of its Brexiteering, Donald-Trump-electing, Carrie-Fisher-slaying mischief?
Will 2017’s cinematic schedule herald a lighter tone, with breezy modern-day musicals such as La La Land (out for release next week)? Or will cinema cut deeper with razor-sharp satire as the world descends (or ascends, depending on one’s viewpoint) to a more right-wing political agenda?
Time will tell, but for now we have this blub-fest from the noted Spanish director J.A. Bayona (the J.A. stands for Juan Antonio by the way).
Bayona has had some big successes in the past, having previously helmed the Oscar-nominated Boxing Day Tsunami orderal porn The Impossible (2012) and the acclaimed, gripping horror film El Orfanato/The Orphanage (2007).
Both of those films dealt with the resilience and coping strategies of children in extraordinary or supernatural situations, surmounting the gauntlets thrown down by nature and evil, so his latest endeavour ties in with them well. Those films also starred Geraldine Chaplin, who is cast here in a small role as the headteacher.
The challenges Conor has to deal with are mostly interior. Yes, he has to make battle with school bullies and his emotionally constipated family, but its his mother’s unnamed terminal illness (presumably a cancer, as nasty and aggressive as the bullies) and his own personality, thought processes and reliance on fantasy that he needs to face up to and conquer.
Conor’s inner turmoil and anger, broiled in hormonal anxiety, manifest externally and magic up a monster that looks and sounds rather like a Tree Ent in Lord Of the Rings but with Neeson’s gruff gaelic tones mixed in, to help him resolve his conflicts. With a thoroughly modern twist, the monster is a tough-love espousing, child psychologist with a predilection for diverting, moralistic fairy-tales.
MacDougal is a great find for a director; an intelligent and pained-looking performer, with eyes full of bewilderment and hurt, he plays with what looks like ease the timid boy who must become the monster that dwells within (batting away the bullies like King Kong does in an old cine-reel copy of the most famous monster movie) to confront the world without.
Its good to see Weaver on-form and in a more mature part than we are used to seeing her in (like Jones’ cancer she has no name, referred to only as Grandma throughout), even if her English accent is as fragile as her character.
She is as pristine as the ancient, vaguely fine possessions in her neat little house and MacDougal must annihalate this Victorian order to form any sort of relationship with this relative before his poor mother breathes her last (and we get the ready feeling that his mother had to do the same to escape as a teenager).
Jones is sweet and delicately impressive actress and rises above the protracted death scene beloved of film actresses, a moment that actually lingers for the full duration of the movie. Kebble rounds-out the strong cast as the absent father figure struggling to find a role within a family tragedy.
I gave this film 3/5 stars in spite these wonderful actors and the intimacy of the film (and you will cry; prepare for that tear-jerk ending), because I felt I had seen the events depicted somewhere else. It’s a bit likeThe BFG, there’s that whiff of Lord Of the Rings in the air and memories of Pan’s Labyrinth were ringing in my head, to list just three.
This is a well-made movie, produced by professionals, but did I get any great, revelatory feeling from seeing it? Not really; all being told, this is a second-rate children’s fantasy realised with first-class talent and ambitions.
There’s nothing so wrong with that – see A Monster Calls and enjoy it but there’s nothing here you won’t feel a creeping sense of familiarity with.
See the official trailer on the official website.
Cast & credits
Director: J.A. Bayona. 108mins. Apaches Entertainment/La Trini/A Monster Calls/Participant Media/River Road. (12a)
Producer: Belen Atienza.
Writer: Patrick Ness.
Camera: Oscar Faura.
Music: Fernando Velázquez.
Sets: Eugenio Caballero.
Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebble, Liam Neeson (voice only), James Melville, Geraldine Chaplin.
3 thoughts on “A Monster Calls (2016). Find out in this review why the great acting in this film was not enough to make it a classic.”
Great review Jason
Thanks Steve, really appreciate the feedback. Hope you have chance to look at any other reviews that interest you! J
Hi Jason, It’s possible that I had an even more positive reaction to “A Monster Calls” than you did because it brought back conflicted feelings of watching my own mother die a few years ago but even with that personal aspect I do think it works well, especially with the acting as you note. My details are at http://filmreviewsfromtwoguysinthedark.blogspot.com/2017/01/fences-hidden-figures-lion-miss-sloane.html. Ken (By the way, Happy New Year if I haven’t mentioned that already.)