Love and legacy are two words that come to mind when watching A Monster Calls – a refreshingly mature coming-of-age film based on the low-fantasy children’s novel of the same name.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a creative young boy thrust into the adult world of maturity and responsibility, due to his mother’s (Felicity Jones) cancer diagnosis, his father’s (Toby Kebbell) constant absence and his grandmother’s (Sigourney Weaver) strict guardianship. It is due to these, and other traumatic life experiences that we see a psychological friendship develop between him and a tree-like monster mentor (Liam Neeson), helping to navigate Conor in such difficult times through a variety of artistic mediums.
As a love letter to the arts, J. A. Bayona is a great match for the material here as director. It’s just a shame that the adaptation of the book by Patrick Ness (based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd) doesn’t reach the same heights and comes off a bit muddled in parts. What makes up for the somewhat heavy-handed themes and repetitive narrative are the performances. Felicity Jones and Lewis MacDougall (in only his second feature film) are clear standouts and work incredibly well together. They have a firm grasp of how to convey what is often most hard to do – our true feelings. For example, some moments are so beautifully shot and rely only on a face to say it all rather than dialogue, which unfortunately is a rare thing to see so convincingly at the cinema today.
Visually, A Monster Calls is hard to fault, as the nature of this dark fantasy drama lends itself so well to Bayona’s aesthetics and style. Having directed The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2012), it’s easy to see how he could combine lessons learnt from those two films to tackle this project. The stunning motion capture for the monster, and lush visual effects work well together in some subtle storytelling scenes as well. It may sound like a jarring experience for the eyes of the audience, but this is not the case at all, though it may well have been in the hands of someone less experienced behind the camera. However, Bayona understands how critical this fusion between imagination and reality is to the visual story, and I found myself at times just simply admiring the way he merged all these creative elements together so seamlessly.
It is a combination of the above that takes you on an emotionally complex journey, so it should come as no surprise that there are some absolute tearjerking moments. It is in these rather special moments that you realise just how much A Monster Calls is worth seeing.
This was the sixth time that Liam Neeson has voiced a CGI character. The first three were for Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, the fourth as Phango in Khumba (2013), and the fifth was Good Cop/Bad Cop in The LEGO Movie (2014).