A Monster Calls 3 Palmtrees out of 4
by Manuel Reynoso
Directed by J.A. Bayona, Written by Patrick Ness, and starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall and Liam Neeson.
Besieged by the turmoil’s of life, armed only with his imagination, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) attempts to come to terms with a tenacious bully, a flaky father, and a dying mother. Guided by the stories of a yew tree brought to life by Conor’s powerful imagination, Conor attempts to understand his violently changing world.
A Monster Calls is a family film with a PG-13 rating that cannot be taken lightly. The film takes a heavy handed approach in its portrayal of just how ugly life can be. Parents must be keenly aware of this film’s lack of subtlety in its portrayal of bullying, loneliness, and death. While it’s themes may be scary for some younger audience members, for others it may be profoundly cathartic. With powerful themes backed up by great visuals and animation, A Monster Calls is an experience to be remembered.
Director J. A. Bayona’s biggest triumph of the film is its art direction. Watercolor and imagination are the two most recurring motifs in the film. Whether it’s shown through the water color drawings of Conor and his mother, or the animated stories of the yew tree, the beauty of the art and animation in this film needs to be celebrated. It creates liveliness and beauty in an otherwise dark and somber family film. Which in turn, plays off excellently with the idea of life not being black and white, but existing somewhere in between.
Where A Monster Calls triumphs in art direction with its brilliant use of animation and watercolor, Patrick Ness’ screenplay left the first act a complete mess. The audience will have to slog through a painfully slow and almost pointless first 30 minutes of the film. During this time the film should be setting up the plot by fleshing out characters, relationships, and motivations; however, the first 30 minutes only loosely sets up the plot. Thus causing the audience to enter the second act with little understanding of the characters and little reason to feel invested.
Thankfully, once through the first act, that is when we see the brilliance of the characters shine through. Watching 12 year old Conor trying to come to terms with range of complicated emotions was greatly enhanced by Lewis MacDougall’s enthralling performance. However, Liam Neeson’s voice work as the yew tree would have to be the strongest performance of this film. It was his narration of the yew tree’s stories that made them the all the more beautiful and thrilling. Outside these two key performances, the secondary characters were not particularly engaging. Sigourney Weaver’s terrible British accent detracted from an otherwise solid performance. Toby Kebbell and Felicity Jones performances as the parents were acceptable but not praiseworthy.
A Monster Calls is not perfect. But it is raw, emotional, beautiful, and ugly all at once. It’s dark and scary for a family film but a great family film nonetheless. A film that could reduce me to a quivering mess by the end is something I do believe worth watching. And I believe you will be made all the better for watching it. PG-13 1h48m