If anybody thought that this past summer’s movie “The BFG” was charming and pretty much whimsical, then “A Monster Calls” takes that feeling in a totally different direction. The movie is based on the novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay. Director J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible” and the upcoming “Jurassic World 2”) brought out a unique take on the coming-of-age genre, involving a talking tree that was magical in all ways. As for someone who never read the book, it seemed like a good adaption.
The film tells the story of Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who’s really good at drawing and is going through a tough time dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. He is also being tormented by a bully at school. There is also the realization that he will probably have to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) because his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in the U.S, not England. It’s a lot to deal with for a young boy, but things change when he’s visited every night at 12:07 a.m. by a talking tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) that tells him different stories.
Lewis MacDougall plays O’Malley and he was outstanding in nearly every scene. It is probably the best performance by a youngster this year. He brought out all the emotions of a young boy dealing with the stress of life. Again, the performance was rare for someone of that age. It won’t happen but he should be in talks for an Oscar nomination.
The relationship between him and his mother is very strong and he hopes she will get better in time. Jones, coming off the success of playing Jyn Erso in “Rogue One,” gives a heartbreaking performance because she’s basically sick throughout the entire movie, really making you feel sorry for her. With almost every role she’s given, it’s impossible not to love her. Will she get nominated? Probably not, but that’s because the Best Supporting Actress list is pretty stacked this year. Sigourney Weaver as Jones’ mother is predictably unlikable and cold-hearted, but she does a good job even without her British accent. Liam Neeson as the Monster does a good job as well. He has a recognizable voice and he seemed captured the monster’s character. He’s the voice of Aslan in the Narnia franchise. You can’t beat that.
Is it a story that has been played out before? A little bit. But when the monster becomes part of the story it makes you wonder if it’s a dream or reality. It essentially clicks in your head right after you realize what happened. This reminds me of “Pan’s Labyrinth” because it has some dark elements with some very creative imagery. The visual effects were undeniably impressive. The scenes where the Monster’s branches stretch out feel real. And every time it comes up, it’s not weird to think of him as Groot’s great uncle who has a better vocabulary than Groot himself.
As these different stories are told to O’Malley, the usage of watercolor animation was beautiful. It’s as if a real painting comes to life. The way that Bayona directs his actors in a scene is excellent. There is a perfect amount of dialogue that’s used to convey enough emotion to really care. For example, there’s a scene with Conor and his grandmother in which very little lines are spoken, but it just works with the reaction on Weaver’s face.
Where the movie kind of falters is that the stories that were told could’ve been a bit more memorable. They’re crafted well, but they kind of briefly distract from the live-action element of the film. Once you realize all the stories have something in common, then it becomes more clear. And personally, there weren’t enough emotional moments. I expected more, but when the emotion is there it really works when it’s needed. There are a couple of scenes that will bring a few tears to your eyes, especially the ending. In a sweet way after thinking it over, the conclusion was honestly perfect.
It’s one of those movies that doesn’t need to be re-watched because of how sad it was. That isn’t common for movies that come out around Oscar season, even if it doesn’t get any consideration. It’s painful to see a character going through untimely grief, especially over someone he loves so deeply. It showcases the themes of suffering, but not to a point where it’s hitting you over the head with it.
So, even though it wasn’t really one of the best movies of the year, it was still a compelling story with a fantastical realization that most things in life need letting go. Bayona definitely brought in everything to handle this well-balanced film.
“A Monster Calls” is a dark but imaginative and moving fantasy as it shows a different viewpoint on grief.