The sight of a tree-like monster uprooting itself from the ground is enough to terrify most children, but not 12-year-old Conor O’Malley. At a stage where he is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man,” Conor (Lewis MacDougall, who gives a breakout performance) has more pressing things to deal with than a monster who he may have inadvertently summoned.
Haunted by a recurring and unspeakable nightmare in which he is unable to save his mother from being devoured by the earth, Conor’s life is in an uncomfortable state of flux. As his mother (Felicity Jones) battles cancer in real life, toying with experimental medicines as a last resort, and his father (Toby Kebbell) prepares to move abroad, Conor is unable to see his future through the fog of uncertainty. The prospect of living with his seemingly stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), if his mother’s treatment does not work, only seems to make Conor’s sullen demeanor worse.
While Conor carries the burden of sadness on his shoulders, director J.A. Bayona embarks on his own quest to wring every ounce of liquid out of the viewers tear ducts. Similar to his previous film The Impossible, A Monster Calls is a film that is designed to pull at one’s heartstrings due to the simple fact that its whole premise is set around a tragedy. The audience can practically feel Bayona sitting beside them and periodically glancing over to see if their eyes are welling up yet.
The remarkable thing about Bayona’s adaptation of Partick Ness’ novel of the same name is, despite it obvious plotting and shameless tear-inducing trappings, the film still manages to win the viewer over in the end.
A Monster Calls follows in the tradition of films that utilizes fantasy tropes to help teach younger viewers about death, Kubo and the Two Strings is another recent example of this. When the titular monster (voiced brilliantly by Liam Neeson) appears, demanding that Conor tell him the deep secret behind his nightmare, only after telling Conor three stories first, the film really kicks into gear.
Incorporating different animation styles to accentuate the first two stories the monster shares – the first offers a sinister twist on the classic dashing prince fairy tales and the second revolves around a preacher who lacks faith – the film truly immerses itself within the fantastical realm. Though the last of the three stories, an invisible man tale that cast Conor in the main role, again the symbolism is far from subtle here, is not as visually stunning as its predecessors, the tale effectively brings the overall emotion of the film to a boil.
At the end of the day it is this blend of inventiveness and emotion that makes A Monster Calls an engaging work. Bayona may lack subtly when it comes to his emotional intentions, but he does understand the awkward stage of adolescence that Conor is in, one that is compounded by adult changes that no one can ever truly be ready for.