Twelve-year-old English boy Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) gets bullied at school. His father (Kebbell) lives in California and his mother (Jones) is terminally ill. But he finds a sort of companionship with a gigantic, storytelling tree-creature (voiced by Neeson) who seemingly holds the secret to saving his mum.
It's difficult to think of a film more brazen than A Monster Calls. With its regular transitions from gloomy real-world drama to earthy fairy tale and its narrative focus on a troubled child, it can’t help but be compared with 2006’s elegant dark-fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. And that’s a high comparison. That Barcelona-born director J.A. Bayona and Pan’s man Guillermo del Toro have been friends since the early ’90s (del Toro executive produced Bayona’s debut feature The Orphanage) only further pushes the comparison. But while its central creature may be larger and far more destructive than the freakish fiends of del Toro’s Labyrinth, A Monster Calls is actually a much gentler film — less thriller and more weepie.
Creatively it bears none of del Toro’s fingerprints, based instead on a novel by American young-adult writer Patrick Ness -— who also wrote the script — which itself was conceived by author Siobhan Dowd shortly before she died. So there is an acutely poignant, intensely personal core to the film, which Bayona handles sensitively; for as well as being a heart-squeezing portrayal of a fiercely imaginative boy dealing with his young mother’s mortality, it also explores the power of storytelling.
Much of this is done by the Liam Neeson-voiced Monster of the title (having the one-time Aslan and Zeus give vocal life to a millennia-old nature god is about as nailed-on as casting gets). After irritably removing his churchyard yew-tree disguise and loping stroppily over to Conor’s bedroom window, this towering über-Groot promises to tell the kid three revelatory stories in exchange for one from him, in which Conor will have to tell “the truth”. The Monster’s stories introduce a third layer of narrative, where the action shifts to animation, rendered in a unique, visually appealing style that somehow feels like watercolours done as stop motion, featuring Princess Bride-style interjections from Conor, irked by the way the tales defy comfortably cut-and-dried interpretation.
Whether A Monster Calls should be considered a children’s film or adults’ film about childhood is uncertain. There’s a good chance it’ll play too young for many grown-ups, while it may prove too emotionally raw for younger viewers, especially during its final scenes. It would be a shame if it fell between these two posts, because Bayona’s artistry is as impressive as his and Ness’ clear refusal to soften on any harsher plot points. Bayona reveals Lewis MacDougall as a talent to be reckoned with, whether we’re watching the wan tyke square up against his formidable grandmother (Weaver) or, indeed, that giant tree-man.
Not that the Neeson-voiced creature is truly the monster of the title. That would be grief itself. Which is why, if you let the film in, it’s unlikely to let you leave the cinema with dry eyes.
Part fairy tale/creature feature/domestic melodrama, this adds up to far more than a ‘one boy and his monster’ story — and is a tougher emotional journey as a result.