I never saw Spielberg’s weirdly titled BFG but I feel like I have now seen a much better variant of a vaguely similar concept in its stead. A Monster Calls is, in addition, comparable to last year’s Little Prince in terms of the thoughts and feelings it inspired in me, but most people would agree that this one is somewhat darker. If you need a good cry, you may want to consider this movie.
Many who went into the film will have expected a straightforward and conventional Fantasy, but this is something far more powerful and thoughtful; a story of grief, coping, and acceptance. Since this is partially a Spanish film, I couldn’t help but think of Pan’s Labyrinth; another Spanish not-quite Fantasy/”fairy tale for grownups” about youngsters who try to deal with the harshness of life by entering a magical realm that may or may not be of their own making.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall ), a young English boy who loves to draw and be with his mother more than he loves to communicate with other children, has a lot that troubles him. The mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of a disease that’s never named but shares many of its symptoms with cancer, his father (Toby Kebbell) has fled to America to pursue a different life, and his imposing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) enters the picture as the mother’s state worsens, much to the dismay of Conor. He’s also terrorized by above-generic bullies at school and finds solace almost exclusively in the movies he watches with mom, including a 16 mm reel of the original King Kong (Conor’s late grandfather is explained as once having owned the projector used in the scene), which he seems to find disappointing because the monster doesn’t win in the end.
And that night, he came walking.
Around midnight, as the clock strikes 12.07, Conor sees the ancient yew tree by the local graveyard, visible from his bedroom window, move and contort itself until it creates a being made entirely of its branches, roots, leaves, trunk and tendrils. Imposing in size and made even more so by the rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the “Monster” warns Conor that it will come to him again – always at 12.07, day or night – and tell him three stories, of kings and creatures and whatever other things it has seen throughout the millenia. When it’s done, it says, it will be Conor’s turn to tell a fourth story, whilst he speaks the “ultimate truth”. Conor doesn’t understand much of this, instead just begging the tree-man for direct help, whether it be for purposes of healing or destruction, but learns with time that it’s not that kind of tale.
The stories told by the Monster are the best part of the film, presented in stylistically gorgeous animated segments that more than occasionally made me think of Jasper Morello. Each of these fairy tales (sans perhaps the third, which some would say made for a disappointing scene), appear to contain their own heroes, villains and morals, but never in the way Conor expects while he listens, which confuses and infuriates him – at first. Any more than that I will not say.
The film is visually astonishing in several other meanings as well. I have not seen J. A. Bayona‘s other films yet, but I’ve heard he has a knack when it comes to the aesthetics of his work, and it shows. The way he channels the colors of his scenes, the way said scenes are lit, Óscar Faura’s cinematography, and of course the Monster, which was achieved with convincing CGI and motion-capture in some scenes and old-school animatronics in others. It is, in straightforward terms, one hell of a special effect.
What A Monster Calls will be most admired for is its emotional impact (we can add this to the already large list of recent films that deal with the concepts of loss and grief far better than Collateral Beauty), which is due in no tiny part to its performances. Lewis MacDougall is outstanding both as a child actor and as an actor in general (a rarity to say the very least), Felicity Jones is more engaging here than in Rogue One, Toby Kebbell is a hundred times better than in Fant4stic and Ben-Hur, and Liam Neeson manages to do a lot using only his thunderous voice and a mo-cap suit; a type of acting that probably isn’t for everyone.
The film also treats us to a lovely score by Fernando Velázquez, imaginative images (even the ones where the powers of the Monster seemed a little too similar to those of Groot and other sentient trees), stupendous sound design, and often unpredictable transitions between fantasy and reality. As an adaptation, I would assume it does its source material justice, since the book and the screenplay were written by the same person.
And indeed, as one character points out, sometimes there isn’t a “happily ever after”, and that’s okay.