While the trailer may have raised ‘Groot Expectations’, J A Bayona’s sumptuous adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel is a world away from the bombastic bonhomie of Marvel’s galactic gadabouts. Firmly rooted (ahem) in the mundane tragedy of real life, “A Monster Calls” is low fantasy elevated to great heights.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a creative, sensitive pre-teen who lives with his mum, who is suffering from a chronic illness. As his mum (Felicity Jones) takes a turn for the worse, Conor finds solace and strength in the presence of a monster, summoned into being by Conor’s emotional turmoil. Kept at arm’s length from the truth of his mother’s condition by well-meaning adults, Conor nurses a dark and terrible truth of his own, but he has made a bargain with the monster and that secret is the price he must pay.
There’s a strong moral thread running through not only the story itself but woven through each of the tales the monster tells as he fulfils his side of the bargain with Conor. The film’s great strength is its respect for the source material’s target audience and its unwavering commitment to retaining Conor’s perspective on the world. The well-intentioned deflecting and indulgent behaviours of the other grown-ups in Conor’s life only serve to fuel his pent up anger and frustration as he grapples with feelings and circumstances which threaten to overwhelm him.
There’s a beautifully lyrical, fairy tale quality to Ness’ story and Bayona brings it vividly to life with its magic and wonder intact. The performances are tremendous, especially Lewis MacDougall as Conor and while Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Conor’s maternal grandmother is strong and richly complex, her English accent has an occasional unfortunate tendency to wander. Liam Neeson’s monster, however, is a fantastic creation, full of wrath and fire and compassion.
The monster itself is just one aspect of the beautifully intricate visuals the movie has to offer. The superbly realised CGI creation is bolstered by wonderful, water-colour inspired animations as the movie delivers its allegorical payload, for this isn’t simply a story of a personal tragedy perceived through a protective veil of fantasy, but a powerful and reassuring affirmation of the importance and power of storytelling and the healing properties of art and imagination.
Starting gently, but ramping up inexorably to a poignant, heart-breaking crescendo, Bayona isn’t nearly as archly manipulative here as he was in his previous feature, the exploitative corporate self-aggrandizement masquerading as important survival drama “The Impossible” but there are still a few times where the emotive filmmaking is a little heavy handed, especially as the story itself doesn’t need any outside assistance to tug at the heartstrings.
Moving, insightful and full of wonder, “A Monster Calls” is destined to be a classic, a magnificently melancholy and yet uplifting collage of life lessons, covering life, love and loss through the eyes of a boy ‘too old to be a kid, too young to be a man’.