A Monster Calls (12A)
Running time 1hr 48mins
TO evoke the terror of childhood has always proved a challenge for screenwriters, but Patrick Ness here delivers a compelling adaptation of his Carnegie Medal-winning novel, a weepy that, like all the best family flicks, grounds its action firmly in the hospital ward and the school corridor, never shying away from the very adult implications of its plot.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a boy grappling with the emotional fallout of his mother’s (Felicity Jones) cancer; in despair, he summons an Ent-like tree monster (voiced by the ever-dependable Liam Neeson), who pledges to tell three tales in exchange for knowledge of the youngster’s own ‘truth’.
It’s a classic fantasy set-up (maybe even a little too ‘classic’ for some palates), but the film supersedes those well-worn foundations with its strictly human focus – the magical elements, engrossing as they are, play second fiddle to Conor’s private troubles. All too often, this kind of movie can come off as hammy and incoherent, but the direction of
JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) attests to Disneyan discipline, allowing for moments of real darkness and emotion notwithstanding the lightning-fast pacing.
Although the viewer is acquainted with Neeson’s monster very early on, any question of his existence is bypassed, a tired gimmick (is he or isn’t he…?) that has sunk one too many a fairytale before. Instead, his role is as a pivot for the brilliant MacDougall, a means of framing his trauma in a way accessible to kids (and grown-up kids). His stories, brought to life with the aid of luscious watercolour animation, flow seamlessly with the central narrative; this is not an anthology piece, and the fables are there to complement the movie’s moral
It’s hardly mawkish, eschewing the cheap laughs and love-bombing that has come to characterise the genre. The key message is a refreshing, realistic commentary on grief – we are all deeply flawed, and it is unwise, the film suggests, to hide our woes from others. Nor is this philosophy a vacant afterthought, informing Conor’s interactions with his estranged relatives – Toby Kebbell’s father-figure is anything but a reckless layabout, and Sigourney Weaver’s grandmother, far from the cold, domineering archetype the silver screen routinely burdens us with, is a woman grieving with Conor, not in spite of him. The inevitable bully (James Melville) is despicable, as ever, but Conor’s revenge is of ethical consequence.
As the terminal illness theme would suggest, this isn’t a straight-up kiddie affair, with a certain grittiness pervading even the cartoon sequences. Sure, the idyllic seaside setting is nothing we haven’t seen before, and it all builds up to a predictable(-ish) conclusion. But, from Felicity Jones’ saintly mother to its surreal SFX spectaculars, there’s something to move and inspire everybody in A Monster Calls.