Genre: Drama, Fantasy Director: J.A Bayona Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson
One film which I’ve seen a lot of attention go to lately was A Monster Calls. People I talked to about it said to me that it was one of the best films they’d seen, and even went as far as t call it a ‘masterpiece’.
While I certainly admire the vision behind this story – bringing a late author’s creation to life – I’m not sure I’d call any film a masterpiece. Nevertheless, it did make me curious enough to take a look. (also it has Sigourney Weaver in it, and she’s always right)
In the end A Monster Calls surprised me. Part of me was expecting a children’s story akin to Bridge to Terbithia or Chronicles of Narnia; both of which are okay films, but certainly not great. But that’s not what you get with this. It’s a story that certainly has coming of age elements in it, but is done in such a way that is less about the wonder of what is happening, and more about how those elements are used to cope with what is happening in the real world.
I’m not entirely certain I can call it a children’s film, though it’s not uncommon for those films to explore dark themes. Sometimes I think it’s the best way to explore complicated ideas.
Such is the case with A Monster Calls; we follow a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) who is – in the words of the narrator – “too old to be a kid, and to young to be a man” (so like any university graduate basically…) Anyway, his mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from cancer, which naturally makes a huge impact on his life. With everyone around him including his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his father (Toby Kebbell) and a school bully (James Melville) trying to decide what should be done with him and expecting him to understand and not understand at the same time, this boy has some serious personal daemons to deal with.
Thus, along comes a monster (Liam Neeson) who says he will tell the boy three stories and in return the boy will tell him one story. These stories, spread through the film, are to teach him valuable lessons about the nature of the world and how hardship can be overcome.
My main and only criticisms about the film – which I’d like to get out of the way at this point – centre around the fact that, because of how we’re told from the start how these stories will be told, and those who have seen films like this will likely know how it will end, the story can be a bit… predictable. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, just that you kind of know what to expect so – except for a few moments throughout the film – there aren’t any real surprises.
Now, as for my positives, I can definitely say that this is a story worth telling; it’s well acted by all parties involved, including MacDougall himself, which is especially impressive. The family is well characterised to fit with his stories and their morals – perhaps with some exception of the mother, as we don’t really see as much of her beyond her illness. But since we’re seeing the world from his eyes, maybe that makes more sense.
With all of them trying to come to terms with what is happening, the way they work off of MacDougall is great to watch, ranging from hopefulness to moments of contempt.
The scenes at school didn’t have anything particularly unexpected ; if you’ve seen any other film with school bullies involved, then you’ve seen these scenes already. Initially though, I thought that it was going in a whole other direction to the one that it decided to go in. Again though, I can say that what is there is still well done, but still predictable.
Now we get to what I wanted to talk about to begin with; the stories themselves. These scenes were the highlight for me. How they’re told is that when the Monster comes to tell the stories, he has the boy use his imagination to fill in what is happening. How this is shown on screen is through watercolour-esque animations of the story unfolding. Those who have watched Deathly Hallows Part 1 will likely recognise this style from the Tale of Three Brothers scene. I’m not sure who was responsible for the animations of this film, but it does have to be commended.
The stories, while initially simple and fairy-tale like, ultimately end with seemingly unfulfilling conclusions, taking a darker turn at different points to teach a wider lesson about how complicated people and life can be. Naturally, no young boy would find any of this satisfying since none of it ends how he wanted it to end.
But as the stories are told, they begin to paint a wider picture of how the world is a difficult place to live in; matching the coming of age theme in the film. They reveal themselves to be less of an exploration of different worlds and people, and more about a journey of self discovery, how not everything is as black and white, and how one can find a way to endure any hardship. All good lessons to impart, and the use of animation for it is something that I definitely enjoyed.
That’s about all that I can say about A Monster Calls really. Any more and it would effectively ruin a story which I think a lot of people will get something out of. To me, it’s has a lot more depth than I would have expected. It’s not a children’s story, but at the same time it is a children’s story. It’s has a predictable plot with some complicated morals in it.
While it does have it’s flaws, A Monster Calls is a film that will get my recommendation, more for how the story is told, than the story itself.