Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver and Liam Neeson
Written by: Patrick Ness
Original Idea by: Siobhan Dowd
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Running Time: 1hr 48mins
WINNER – Goya Awards: Best Director (J.A. Bayona), Best Original Score (Fernando Velázquez), Best Cinematography (Oscar Faura), Best Editing (Bernat Vilaplana & Jaume Martí), BestProductionDesign (Eugenio Caballero), Best Special Effects (Pau Costa & Félix Bergés), Best Makeup and Hairstyles (Marese Langan & David Martí) and Best Sound (Peter Glossop, Oriol Tarragó & Marc Orts)
NOMINEE – Goya Awards Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay (Patrick Ness) and Best Film
NOMINEE – Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Best Fantasy Film and Best Performance by a Younger Actor (Lewis MacDougall)
“I love the idea of going to the cinema and going through an emotional journey. I hate to go to a cinema and see a movie and forget about it five minutes later. I love the idea of making films that stay with the audience, and somehow the films keep growing in their imagination afterwards. The whole thing keeps growing. I love that.” — Director: J.A. Bayona
There is a moment near the end of A MONSTER CALLS that effectively transforms this dark tale from a good film into a great one. It comes from a brave and unexpected twist that completely changes the meaning behind the main character’s journey while elevating the film to a stronger emotional level. A MONSTER CALLS is a thought-provoking tale that deals with the impending loss of a loved one. It effectively challenges the audience by causing them to ponder over a darker side of their feelings regarding the mortality of those close to them who may be suffering from a terminal illness. Refusing to pull its punches, the movie is an incredibly moving experience that will have most viewers in tears throughout much of its final act.
A MONSTER CALLS begins with the ground outside a deserted church opening up and a twelve-year-old Conor gripping his mother’s hand as she hangs from the edge of a bottomless hole. If he doesn’t hold on she will plummet to her death. This turns out to be only a dream, a reoccurring nightmare for Conner that will play a big part in the film’s story. We soon find out that the young boy is living a difficult life. Not only is he being bullied at school, but his dad has moved away to America and left him and his mom to take care of themselves. This should probably be enough angst for any story, but it all pales in comparison to the fact that Conor’s mom is dying from an unnamed sickness and it doesn’t look like there’s any hope. Then, one night, the yew tree that sits in the graveyard behind their house comes to life in a monstrous form and visits Conor. At first, it presents itself as a scary creature, the kind that belongs in a horror movie and may be there to harm the boy. But, as this is not a horror movie, the tree monster turns out to be a guardian angel instead. It informs Conor that in the following nights, it will come back to tell him three stories and then Conor will tell a fourth and it will be his real truth, the truth that he dreams, the truth of his nightmare.
Director J.A. Bayona is a filmmaker whom I have come to admire over the years. Ever since seeing his first film, THE ORPHANAGE, he has done nothing but impress me. Here he chooses to tackle some big themes without backing away from the realities of life. A MONSTER CALLS isn’t subtle with its emotions, and Bayona bravely refuses to give us the happiest of answers and play it safe. Drawing on genuine feelings rather than allowing the fantasy elements to take over, he and writer Patrick Ness set such a realistic tone to the film that it’s hard not to see and feel the truth of the emotions being presented. This is a film sincere in what it wants to say and uncompromising in how it says it.
Ness, the author of the original novel (from an idea by popular Y.A. author Siobhan Dowd who passed away before being able to write the story herself), does a great job adapting the story. The impending loss of a loved one is a delicate situation that can be very hard to portray in one’s writing without coming off as manipulative. Ness never lets the narrative get overly sappy, as the overall tone of the story remains grounded in reality, an interesting and effective choice for a movie populated by a talking tree. Ness ultimately delivers a script that is as sad as it is touching while beautifully communicating that life’s most challenging issues don’t generally have the easiest solutions.
Like Steven Spielberg’s E.T., this is a movie told entirely through the eyes of a child. With so much on his shoulders, young Lewis MacDougall (PAN) does a great job handling the vast range of emotions young Conor experiences throughout the film. This couldn’t have been an easy task either, as Conor is forced to deal with some very adult emotions. From sorrow and anger to confusion, grief and guilt, MacDougall hits every note just right, making it hard to believe that this is only his second film. Giving a very grownup performance and striking the right range of emotional beats throughout, he becomes the main reason the story works so effectively on our emotions.
Conor’s Mum (as she is credited) is played by Academy Award-nominated actress Felicity Jones (THE HISTORY OF EVERYTHING). Jones delivers a low-key yet still emotionally powerful performance as Conor’s terminally ill mother. The relationship that Conor and his Mum have is special and can be felt in every scene that they share as the two actors play off each other perfectly. From the moment where they watch King Kong together at home to the discussions they have regarding Mum’s treatments, the viewer can feel this loving bond that the two characters have, making the film even more heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, there’s also Grandma, played by three-time Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver (ALIEN & THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY). Grandma is an interesting character who’s given more weight as the story progresses. At first, she comes off a little like someone we have seen in so many movies before. The strict adult who the child doesn’t like. But as the story unravels, the script gives her some interesting moments that add some real honest dimension to the character while revealing the true inner emotions that weigh on her as she watches her daughter’s health deteriorate. Her inner journey may take up less screen time than the young boy’s, but the final character arc moment she’s given with Conor is unforgettable.
Of course, we can’t forget that the film has a giant talking tree monster in its center and as strange as this may sound, Bayona and his visual f/x team seamlessly integrate the character into the film without allowing it to draw too much attention to itself and overpower the story being told. The tree monster is voiced by Liam Neeson (SCHINDLER’S LIST), who gives the monster a genuine presence as he seems to understand the true spirit behind the creature completely. Even though the monster may be presented as very scary at first, he ultimately turns out to be a very comforting soul and Neeson voices him with the perfect tone to fully realize a character that could have easily come off as ridiculous and distracting.
Lastly, there are the stories that the tree tells the boy. The first two are incredible little tales, beautifully brought to life with the art of animation and with very few modifications, could’ve worked as stand-alone short films. Fortunately, as they are, they work perfectly within the bigger story being told. All three stories each have key elements that help move Conor’s emotional journey forward as the themes behind them are meant to be life lessons for young Conor, lessons to help him understand the emotions he is experiencing while also discovering the truth of his nightmares.
A MONSTER CALLS is a brave film that pushes all the right buttons as it explores feelings that we as human beings can have a hard time dealing with. It’s a dark fairy-tale written for adults and is a thought-provoking experience that isn’t afraid to reveal the truths its themes need in order to be an honest and moving tale. It’s a difficult movie to watch at times, one that will have many viewers in tears, yet the filmmakers have effectively given us an emotionally rewarding motion picture that the moviegoing audience will be glad they gave their time to.
Watch A MONSTER CALLS
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