A Monster Calls is an emotionally-charged dark fantasy delight. Here’s our review…
In A Monster Calls, Conor O’Malley is struggling to deal with his mother’s terminal illness. One night, however, he is visited by an enormous tree-man who, through his subsequent visits, helps him come to terms with this tough period. Think The Iron Giant crossed with The Fault in Our Stars and you might have something approaching this moving and surprisingly dark drama.
The highlights of the film for me were the series of morally-ambiguous fairy tales that the Monster tells Conor, all serving to teach him a valuable lesson about life. The idea to shift into animation for these sequences is a brilliant one, and they are heavily reminiscent – in a good way – of that terrific ‘The Tale of Three Brothers‘ scene in The Deathly Hallows Part One.
The other highlight, naturally, is Liam Neeson as the hulking, tall-tale-telling Monster of the title. An ambiguous aloof character, this isn’t the cuddly gentle giant of other family-friendly adventures. Rather he forces Conor into uncomfortable positions in order for him to discern the root of his problem, like Groot with a psychology degree. Speaking of Marvel, here’s an interesting fact: Spider-Man himself Tom Holland stood in for the Monster on set.
Moreover, there is a pronounced The Wizard of Oz vibe to proceedings as the movie deliberately leaves it unsaid whether the Monster is an externalisation of Conor’s own grief or if he really exists. This is a nice addition from (if memory serves) the straight-up fantasy of the original novel and further helps to ground the story. For instance, A brilliant touch is having Neeson briefly glimpsed in photos as Conor’s grandad.
The acting from the tight but talented cast is never less than superb. Sigourney Weaver might struggle with maintaining her British accent but she excels at the complex role of the uptight but not heartless grandmother. Rogue One‘s Felicity Jones doesn’t have much more to do than be very ill and very kind but you can’t help but be moved by her increasing frailty. Most of all, though, Lewis MacDougall is a real find as Conor. The boy is a real brat throughout much of the film but MacDougall ensures we always sympathise and relate to this troubled teen.
Patrick Ness did a fine job of adapting his own novel, embellishing and streamlining with a deft hand in order to get to the heart of the story. There was one element from the novel I wish had made it to the film, though: Conor’s childhood best friend – and possible romantic interest – Lily. The fact that Conor has someone to talk to outside his family added a modicum of light to the tale in the book and, without her presence, his life becomes a lot more depressing.
Such emotionally-taxing viewing isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies, of course, but if you are someone who goes into a film looking for a strong emotional reaction then A Monster Calls will not disappoint. There has been quite a bit of debate about whether the film is suitable for a family audience but, while it certainly not for small children, I would say that anyone can appreciate it’s blend of fantasy and feeling.