You could be forgiven for thinking that A Monster Calls is a children’s film: young boy befriends a giant tree monster and a heart-warming friendship with romping action scenes ensue. However, like Spike Jonze’s bittersweet Where the Wild Things Are, this is a film about children rather than a film for children, and it’s also one of the most devastating portrayals of death in recent memory.
Based on Patrick Ness’s children’s fantasy novel, A Monster Calls follows 13-year-old Conor as he comes to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. Bullied in school and rejected by his absent father, Conor turns to his imagination for comfort. His imagination, it seems, manifests itself in the transformation of a yew tree in his garden into a towering monster. The monster says he will tell Conor three stories in exchange for a story of Conor’s own.
It’s a slight tale, but one heavy with emotion and hidden meaning. Each of the monster’s stories – tenderly animated in watercolour – subtly reflect the worries Conor has about his life beyond his mother’s death. Unlike Where the Wild Things Are, there is no ambiguity surrounding the monster’s existence. While there are hints that it might be the watching presence of Conor’s deceased grandfather, it’s made perfectly clear that this is all happening in Conor’s head.
The monster is beautifully animated and you soon forget the noticeable similarities to other recent botanical beasts, Lord of the Rings’ Treebeard and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot. Voiced by a growling Liam Neeson, the monster’s gruffness, paired with the sensitive story surrounding it, prevent the central relationship from becoming too saccharine, though the film certainly wears its heart on its sleeve.
What director J.A. Bayona has achieved here is a stunning portrayal of the impact of cancer on a family. The relationship between Conor and his mother (played by a heart-breaking Felicity Jones) feels so authentically human and loving that many of their shared moments will undoubtedly reduce audiences to tears. From a mid-point hospital scene where Conor’s mother reveals her deep understanding of Conor’s grief, the film hits an emotional high and doesn’t let go of its grip all the way through to the poignant ending.
Bayona once again shows his ability to direct children (after The Orphanage and The Impossible) and Lewis MacDougall delivers an enthralling central turn as Conor. You are always on Conor’s side, though there’s a sense of overkill in how much the boy must suffer. His mother is dying, he is going into the care of his cold grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and he is beaten up daily at school. Must his father also be callous and unfeeling? Perhaps a touch more warmth in this sidelined relationship would have lightened the film’s considerable emotional load.
The supporting cast is excellent though the appearance of Sigourney Weaver jars. A Monster Calls may be an international production, but it has a gritty English authenticity and the appearance of such a huge movie star detracts from that feeling. It doesn’t help that Weaver’s English accent is one of the worst in recent cinema: she speaks in a heightened faux-British manner without any attempt at the correct vowel sounds.
It’s a small distraction in an outstanding piece of cinema. This is magic-realism at its best, a searing and unapologetically emotional triumph that will perhaps struggle to find a large audience. It’s a much smaller film that people may expect, just one that happens to have a giant talking tree. Don’t go for the monster – this is more Ken Loach than Michael Bay – instead go for the bittersweet tale of a son’s love for his dying mother. And bring tissues.