A surprisingly morose and sad story, old lessons exceptionally well explored.
Conor lives with his mother who is slowly dying of cancer. The young boy’s life is a wreckage of bottled emotion and absent father figures and childhood, but when a colossal, fifty foot monster takes an interest in him, Conor is about to learn some very real life lessons.
Now that might sound a bit silly, or remind you of The Iron Giant, but I am happy to say that A Monster Calls is perhaps one of the most resonant children’s films I’ve seen in decades. True, the term “children’s film” has different meanings these days to people, and many wouldn’t consider the tone or the reality of this film suiting as such… but what else is it?
I was happily reminded of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (arguably my favourite film) while watching this. In essence what we have are two worlds. Conor (played by Lewis MacDougall) is the only one who can see The Monster that visits him and while frightening, coiling with roots and vines, eyes often burning with fire, he isn’t as scary as the real world that surrounds Conor every day. Indeed, Conor himself first meets The Monster not in fear but in anger! He may be young, but he has experienced a lot… Monsters and nightmares are nothing compared to what the real world can give us.
The dynamic between these two is surprising even after their unconventional introductions. The Monster wants nothing more than to tell Conor stories, three stories, which will lead to a fourth story that Conor must tell. Conor is perplexed and unimpressed; thinking a giant monster would help him save his mother, or fight his bullies at school, while The Monster is insulted and frustrated at the boy’s insolence. But these stories are visualised gloriously. Liam Neeson, who voices The Monster, is mesmerising with his “storyteller voice” as beautiful watercolour inspired animation accompanies each story. These, as well as the animation and design of The Monster itself, are amazingly well done.
But it isn’t just Conor and The Monster of course. Felicity Jones plays his mother exceptionally well, as does Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother (yup, the original Hollywood badass heroine is now a grandmother!) the dynamics between them all is nuanced and subtly played out. Especially between Weaver and MacDougall. It is a relatable and heartbreaking relationship, as well as kind of fun.
I have not read the book of the same name, but it took me no time at all to figure how the story would end. Not that was displeased with the ending, far from it; it is immensely powerful and important. Perhaps my only grievance is for the “stereotypical school bullies”, who are there to make Conor’s already bad life even worse, but feel incredibly one-note compared to everything else. But I am sure children can always relate to the trope, it is only because I’ve seen it so much that I find it tedious.
It is heartbreaking and sad, but beautiful and sincere to behold. I didn’t have much expectations for A Monster Calls, but I am certainly glad I watched it! A very mature tale with lessons that can affect us all.
Additional Marshmallows: It almost, almost made me cry.