Fantastic Fest Review: 'A Monster Calls' Strikes All the Right Chords
by Jeremy Kirk
October 2, 2016
A Monster Calls seems to have one goal in mind and one goal alone. That is, to deprive audiences of the contents of their tear ducts and make them a sobbing mess. Some might call it manipulative, but that's not really anything new for director J.A. Bayona, who has previously swept audiences up with the emotionally draining The Orphanage and The Impossible. With A Monster Calls, though, the emotion is genuine, and the director, working off a screenplay from Patrick Ness adapting his own novel, twines magnificent fantasy with authentic drama to make a heart-wrenching, cinematic experience. It helps that the cast, led by Lewis MacDougall and the voice of Liam Neeson, is so spot on and committed to the subject at hand. A Monster Calls is a wonderful film that shouldn't be passed up by any audience member of any age.
Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor O'Malley, a shy 12-year-old boy living in a small village with his mother (Felicity Jones), herself at the tail end of a battle with cancer. Conor is a daydreamer and often loses himself in the fantastic reality he builds up around himself, notably the presence of a monster (voiced by Neeson) who grows out of a nearby, yew tree. The monster visits the young boy and tells him about three stories he'll be relaying to him, each one with the purpose of helping Conor understand the loneliness and anger he has building up inside. What follows is an incredibly moving look at one boy's struggle with the pain in his life and his inability to connect with those around him.
The low fantasy at work in Ness' original novel moves effortlessly from his page onto the screen with Bayona an apparent master at blending the two worlds together. The tree monster's presence is never out-and-out explained beyond the fantastic elements Conor is drawn to. This is a boy who watches the classic King Kong without an understanding of why anyone would want to harm the beast, and the artistic frame of mind built into his mother's background certainly helps. None of the fantastical elements are ever in question, as the commitment to it from Bayona and Ness offers a tremendous amount of respect for everything going on.
It helps that the film looks amazing, with the director and cinematographer Oscar Faura allowing a gothic mood to set over the scenes of reality and fantasy alike. The monster's stories, each one more compelling than the last in the way it helps explain Conor's attitude, are exquisitely realized with animation to the point a fully animated film seems to obviously be in the cards for the director's future. Nonetheless, every moment of A Monster Calls does a genuine service to the story Ness is telling, the drama that's enveloping Conor's world tugging at the viewer's heart with more and more success as the film progresses.
That commitment is also felt with tremendous effectiveness in the performances of all the actors involved. MacDougall seems to pull off the impossible here, drawing from adult emotions while still conveying the attitudes of a young boy. The young actor appears to mature as the events of the film play out, and it's his barrage of emotions that causes the waterworks in the audience to be turned on full blast.
Likewise, the performances on display from Felicity Jones and her co-star Sigourney Weaver as Conor's grandmother are phenomenal to say the very least. Both deliver exactly as is expected, but the strength found in each is what makes them such remarkable turns. Neeson's voice as the monster is of the highest quality, and Toby Kebbell, playing a somewhat thankless role as Conor's absent father, gives a more memorable performance than the role even requires.
Yes, you know exactly where A Monster Calls is aiming in its attempt to strike the emotional chord, and there aren't many surprises to be found within the film. Still, Ness' writing and Bayona's handling of the imagery and his cast are what makes the dramatic aspects to the film sink in and draw tears from viewers. A Monster Calls isn't going to win any awards for ingenuity, but its actions warm the heart to just the right temperature. It's a film bustling with heart and weighed down with emotion, and A Monster Calls ends up being the child-friendly Pan's Labyrinth children and adults alike didn't realize they needed in their lives.
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