Overview: A monster helps a young boy come to terms with losing his terminally ill mother. Focus Features; 2016; Rated PG-13; 108 minutes.
Messily Ever After: A Monster Calls is a garbage fairy tale. The wicked grandmother is far from wicked. The handsome young prince is sort of petulant and makes every effort to not be a hero. The midnight-visiting monster is better at telling confusing stories than doing any of the standard things that a monster would do. And the ancient magic tree does not cure a damn thing. But J.A. Bayona-directed adaptation of the fantasy novel from Patrick Ness concedes its intention to fail at being a fairy tale pretty early. When The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) smashes his way into the life of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), he introduces a sort of syllabus. He will tell three stories, he explains, in return for a fourth story told by Conor when the trilogy is complete. These stories, too, are poor fairy tales – in which an adored prince ends up being a secret murderer, a rumored witch of a stepmother ends up being a victim, and a medicine man makes a selfish decision and refuses to help a pastor willing to give up everything to save his daughters. These vignettes, hauntingly rendered in ink, paint, 3D software, and other effects tools by animation director Adrian Garcia and Glassworks Barcelona, offer some of the most sorrowful German expressionism-inspired animation that viewers can expect to find in a modern wide release film, and all of them serve the development of Conor’s coming to terms with his real story.
It Starts With a Boy: When I finished watching A Monster Calls, I immediately looked up its young star to confirm a hunch inspired by his acting. Just as his spot-on screen torment lead me to suspect, MacDougall had lost his mother in real life to multiple sclerosis just before he began filming (when he was just thirteen). While much of the movie’s blunt and beautiful melancholy can be attributed Bayona’s own measured emotional calculations, there is something exceptionally earnest and real about Conor’s carrying the emotional weight of the film. Released late and limited in a year full of cinematic mourning, A Monster Calls is positioned amidst more adult-directed grief films, but the heroism and bravery of MacDougall’s performance must be marked down for future reflection and celebration.
How Does the Fourth Story End: Because all of this ultimately feeds into A Monster Calls saying the only thing there is to say about loss. That is, that life is difficult and strange and complicated. It is to Bayona’s credit that he moves this message from subtext to text, exhibiting faith in audiences young and old to recognize and accept this as fact. An exceptionally gut-wrenching scene late in the film sees Conor’s now-evidently dying mother (played with graceful poetry by Felicity Jones) tell her son that she does not need him to say the things that he is afraid to say to her. She knows that they are true. But Conor still needs to say it to himself. His Monster needs to hear it, and in return, the monster explains the messiness of all of the film’s stories, that humans tell themselves simplified lies that are excused as covers for complex truths.
Overall: A Monster Calls, in an unabashed appeal to and cathartic emulation of emotional devastation, moves with uneven rhythm to the beat of dull melancholy, with the story’s handful of fantastic metaphors meant to supplement and not obscure the more literal and necessary essay on loss.
Featured Image: Focus Features