A dark and kids movie. You sure don’t see those much anymore. At least, that’s the impression I got. I gather it’s a story about a kid who loses his mom and in order to cope, he makes up a monster that only he can see and hear. It also looks like the underlying message is that if you suffer a loss like this, it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be in pain. That can be a pretty powerful thing to say… if you have a proper story to back it up. Here’s hoping.
Let’s take a look at the cast. Starring, we have Lewis McDougall, in his first starring role, and having only been in the 2015 flop, PAN. Congrats, young sir. Starring opposite him, we have the amazing talents of Sigourney Weaver (CABIN IN THE WOODS , the Alien franchise, and TV movie PRAYERS FOR BOBBY ), Felicity Jones (ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY , THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , and INFERNO ), and the voice talent of the ever amazing Liam Neeson (THE LEGO MOVIE , STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE , and the Chronicles of Narnia films).
Now for behind the scenes. Directing is J.A. Bayona, primarily a director of foreign films, but has done THE ORPHANAGE (2007). Penning the screenplay is Patrick Ness, who also authored the novel this movie is based on. Composing the music is Fernando Velázquez, known for PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND ZOMBIES (2016) and CRIMSON PEAK (2015). Finally, the cinematographer is Oscar Faura, known for THE IMITATION GAME (2014) and THE ORPHANAGE.
I have pretty high hopes for this. Looks good, like the cast, sure hope it lives up to my expectations. This is my honest opinion of A MONSTER CALLS.
Conor (Lewis McDougall) is a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones). He’s an artist and loves to draw. However, his Lizzie is dying from a terminal illness. She gets treatment, but so far it hasn’t helped. Being forced to deal with the very real reality that he might lose her, he’s visited by a yew tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) at 12:07 at night, who tells him stories of princes and witches, healers and priests, and invisible men, all the while Conor is trying to carry on with his life.
What happened to the days where kids films went this dark and heavy? Never mind having the guts to tell something so hard to tell in the first place, but to make it so powerful and meaningful. This is probably one of my favorite kids films of the year.
Alright, so I want to go on record with a personal belief here. I absolutely hate it when a movie is described as “sad.” You wanna know what I think of when you describe a movie like that? It’s depressing. What’s depression? The cynical definition in this case would be “something that makes you cry for no reason.” Yeah, I know, it’s more complicated than that, but I stand by most of it. Why do you cry? Because whatever triggered that emotional reaction means it meant something. There was something worth getting invested in and it the emotional payoff was worth it. You connected to it on a personal level and that’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you think, make you feel, to challenge your common conception through imagination and creativity. To me, crying to a movie is one of the most incredible experiences you can have. Humor is easy. Meaningful validation of human emotion, that’s one of the hardest things to do, as well as riskier. So, no, I will not say that this movie is “sad,” but rather it’s “powerful.”
So can I just go for the man of the hour? McDougall, for a newcomer, this kid held up the movie rather spectacularly. Every emotion that he’s supposed to hit, he nails it on the head like a veteran. His performance isn’t even devoid of a little humor. But more than that, Conor is written perfectly: like a real kid. He’s confused, he’s angry, he’s sad, and why the hell wouldn’t he be? His mother is dying and there’s always just one more treatment to try that doesn’t seem to work. He breaks things, he hits people, he’s no saint and that’s the way it should be. Anyone who knows me really well knows that I love well-written kid characters and this might be one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. I really wish this kid a fulfilling and easy-going career because he’s got some mad talent.
And Jones, by the grace of God, this woman… she steals my heart… and then puts it through a wood chipper, and I mean that in a good way. She’s this sick mother and does her best to keep herself involved in Conor’s life while she still can, but she’s so frail and you can see every inch of her struggles. But you see that complex fire in her eyes that says she’s not giving up hope, but also the acknowledgement that it may not work out the way anyone wants it to.
And when was the last time Weaver made you feel the feels?! Oh my god, this might be one of her best acting jobs to date. She plays Conor’s grandmother who has an enormous chip on her shoulder. She and Conor don’t really get along, for pretty ambiguous reasons. Maybe because she really disliked Lizzie’s ex-husband and Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) and her own grandson is a reminder of him, or maybe she thinks he’s acting too childishly naive in regards to his mother’s health, but she’s not completely without humanity. She does care deeply for Lizzie and is definitely a mother in emotional pain as well. There’s this phenomenal scene where his grandma has Conor move into her home while his mom is in the hospital and she leaves him alone in her home, which is full of priceless antiques. The monster comes and tells him the second story and in his imagination, he and the monster are destroying an abandoned house, but when he snaps back into reality, he discovers that he’s completely destroyed the living room. His grandma comes home and… there’s so little dialog. She looks at the damage he’s caused and you think she’s going to scream at him, lecture, anything, but while she does give this angry and sad look at him, she destroys a glass cabinet and leaves the room with barely more than two words exchanged between the two of them. Conor eventually goes to the door of her bedroom and hears her crying. It’s impossible to tell if she’s crying about the living room, if she found out something horrible at the hospital, or if it’s all of it. Either way, this is probably one of the more powerful and stand-out scenes.
And on a backhanded complimentary note, finally, Kebbell has a live action role that doesn’t suck! I’m of course referring to stinkers like FANT4STIC (2015) and BEN-HUR (2016), yet his mo-cap films WARCRAFT (2016) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) are awesome. I don’t know, man, it’d be nice to see his face and not immediately associate it with box-office poison.
I even love the visuals of the story sequences. Two of the stories that the monster tells are told through – God, I wish I remembered what the movie called it, but… – animation. Simplistic child-like paintings and they’re kind of disturbing. But each story has its relevance to Conor’s current problems and serve to teach him something about life.
But now’s probably a good time to mention the films very few missteps. I mentioned those animation sequences. Well… there could be an argument, and a pretty compelling one, that these stories are a little too elaborate for their intended purposes and may not fully connect. It’s obvious that the “Prince and the Witch” story was meant to teach Conor that his grandmother is indeed harsh and doesn’t handle distress very well, but that she’s still not a bad person, but the rest of the story feels a little too disjointed from this lesson. Yes, people are complex, even Conor is complex, but is the prince of the tale who murders his girlfriend supposed to represent Conor? In what way? No matter how this is spun, it doesn’t always make sense. And there’s also another sequence, “The Apothecary and the Parson,” once again, serves the same purpose: people are complex. But this one seems even more disconnected than the first. I don’t remember any characters that were greedy or any preachy characters that seemed misguided. But maybe there’s some symbolism that I missed. There’s also the final story. Without giving anything away, it’s completely glossed over with no animated tie-in, and the end result is not… realistic, considering what happens.
Having said all that, it’s actually incredibly hard for me to take these things as a reason to dock points because another argument could be that the film really wants to emphasize that people are complex, and that the stories the monster tells aren’t necessarily supposed to be about Conor specifically. Ultimately, I choose to believe that their purpose is supposed to be generalized in their connection to Conor. These sequences aren’t even bad and the rest of the film really follows through with what it’s trying to say, and what it says is moving and challenging, just like great art is supposed to do. The movie may be rated PG-13, and it’s pretty well-earned, but I’ll be damned if I don’t recommend this everyone, even kids. It’s a hard movie to sit through, but it’s got a rare message that not a lot of movies have touched. It’s one of the best films of the year, if you ask me.
My honest rating for A MONSTER CALLS: 5/5