In 2016 we saw a resurgence of films featuring kids who befriend misunderstood monsters. In the summer we saw the release of Dinsey’s Pete’s Dragon as well as Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Both of these films, as I’ve noted before frame their respective “monsters” as story-telling devices to explore humanity’s responses to fear of the unknown and weather or not this behavior is learned or innate. Towards the end of the year, we got the Spanish-British production, A Monster Calls. Pete’s Dragon and The BFG both fall squarely into the ‘family film’ category, telling relatively simple stories aimed primarily at younger viewers, whereas A Monster Calls – while relatable from a child’s perspective – proves to be the much more mature, ambiguous and emotionally-challenging film.
Scary but gentle monsters that befriend children in order to teach us greater lessons about humanity or serve as commentaries for our society are not new concepts to cinema. We’ve seen them in films such as The Iron Giant, These stories can also take on more introspective tones as well. In My Neighbor Totoro and Where the Wild Things Are, for example, the monsters can personify emotional struggle or symbolize a form of escapism from a bleak reality. Such is the case with A Monster Calls.
A Monster Calls, based on Patrick Ness’ novel of the same name, centers around 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) as he grapples with the effects of his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal cancer, navigates strained relationships with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and distant father (Toby Kebbell), and faces a bully at school. On top of this, Conor meets an immortal tree-like monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who comes to tell him three stories over the course of several nights.
The film boasts fantastic visuals for a seemingly smaller scale production – not only the on-screen depiction of the monster itself, but through beautifully artful animations of the monster’s tales that come off as a vivid painted canvas of dreams and fairytales come to life.
What’s really at the core, however, is the story being weaved within and between these visuals, craftily navigated by director J.A. Bayona. It’s a story of the diverging paths we take when led by grief and how we handle our frustrations, a story of the meanings we attribute to different stories and parables, and a story of confronting one’s own truths, no matter how difficult that may seem.
I didn’t know what to expect coming into this film, but as the credits began to roll I could feel its weight. A Monster Calls is emotionally draining and haunting, but it’s also a rewarding viewing experience that will stick with you. As we all know, there are times when the weight of the world seems too much to bear. While we often try to power through it, we need to realize that there are times when we should let our frustrations loose before we burst from all the bottling up we tend to do. As Felicity Jones’ character, Lizzie Clayton, tells her son, “if you have to break things, then by God, you break them.”
A Monster Calls was an easy film to miss during it’s initial theatrical run in over the Christmas season the United States, but as it’s become available on both physical and digital releases, it is entirely worth 108 minutes of your time.