Following two of J.A. Bayona’s most notable projects in The Orphanage and The Impossible, the up-and-coming director has continued to show improvements in his work as time elapses preparing him for directing future blockbusters, beginning with the Jurassic World sequel. His continuous improvements in film-making is apparent in his most recent film; A Monster Calls, based off the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness which follows a young boy who seeks the help of a tree monster through his vast imagination to aid him in coping with his single mother’s terminal illness. Bayona’s third “major” film may be his best yet as his cast, storytelling, visuals, and the underlying themes propel the film to cinematic beauty.
One of the more attention-grabbing aspects of A Monster Calls to many viewers may very well likely be its excellent cast upon first examination. The film introduces the young and talented Lewis MacDougall as the film’s protagonist in Conor, Felicity Jones as his mother, Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother, and the always-talented Liam Nesson voices the monster. While all three of the latter perform their roles excellently, the most surprising performance is likely to be Lewis MacDougall. While many “coming of age” films featuring young actors as their protagonists may falter as a result of poor acting, A Monster Calls excels in this area as a result of MacDougall’s performance. While one may consider the supporting characters to be one dimensional and only serve to aid the plot, this is far from the truth in regards to MacDougall and his character. Conor, a young boy facing not only the troubles of living with his mother on the brink of death but the many troubles experienced during adolescence as well, experiences a variety of strong emotions throughout the course of the film. Those emotions would not be made apparent to the film’s viewers had it not been for MacDougall’s performance which made those emotions clear and convincing. Although all of the film’s characters, all of whom are meant to be British, Sigourney Weaver lacks a convincing accent. This may simply be a miscast, yet this issue is minor enough to not harm her character or her performance too much.
A Monster Call‘s screenplay, also written by the novel’s author Patrick Ness, serves to benefit the film. While creating an excellent balance between the real-life occurrences experienced by Conor during the day and the fantasy life with the tree monster he imagines at night, the story is sure to not focus too much on the imagination and does not focus too little on real-life. While the story is beautiful at times, it is equally haunting as well. The underlying themes of the movie involve death, the sadness that surrounds death, and the human reaction to this sadness. The first two acts of the movie are slightly moving, yet the film’s climax and conclusion finally gains momentum and supplies viewers with some of the more emotionally jarring sequences of events seen in recent films. The conclusion is not predictable by any means, yet the way in which it is executed is enough to bring tears to many viewers’ eyes. One minor complaint regarding the film’s screenplay involves its structure. Considering the way in which Conor meets the monster every night as a part of his dreams, the pattern of daytime to nighttime is repetitive and soon becomes predictable as the movie progresses.
While the film excels in many aspects, the aspect which propels A Monster Calls from average to well above average is its visuals. As expected, Conor’s real-life experiences are not dramatized as a way of exuding the characters’ sadness and struggles. It uses dull colors and does nothing to portray any happiness. However, in contrast the scenes in which Conor’s imagination is utilized to its full potential with the tree monster are all visually beautiful. The various settings, colors, animation, and the tree monster itself are all visually excellent, serving to enhance the viewers’ experience. In particular, the dream sequences in which the monster shows Conor the several tales or stories integral to the plot are the most visually attractive, leaving viewers yearning for more. These tales told by the monster use colorful pencil animation with a storybook feel to them, all of which are animated to make these stories more stylized.
J.A. Bayona has crafted an excellent film with a strong emotional core. The protagonist never experiences any physical danger, yet the psychological dangers he experiences are very real. The film creates an excellent balance between real-life and a visually appetizing fable, yet continues to portray the dark and disturbing underlying themes of the sadness surrounding death in a way welcoming to viewers. A Monster Calls puts the difficulties of death into perspective for its viewers with a conclusion which can serve as a therapeutic film for anyone who has ever lost a loved one. Overall, I would give A Monster Calls a score of 7.5/10 and I would consider it a very solid start to 2017.