Stories are wild creatures.
J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls is a handsomely-crafted, genuinely moving, frequently thoughtful movie about coping with tragedy. Unfortunately, it bears such a striking similarity to Guillermo del Toro’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth that one can’t help but compare the two. Good as A Monster Calls is, it simply can’t reach that level of quality.
The film centers on Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall, Pan), a boy whose mother (Felicity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) has been diagnosed with cancer. She says that she will get better eventually, that there’s still hope… but she seems to fade a little more with each passing scene. This would be a difficult situation under any circumstances, but every part of Conor’s life seems to offer some form of struggle: he’s being bullied at school, he’s being forced to stay with his emotionally distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, Alien) and he’ll soon be visiting with his estranged father (Toby Kebbell, Rocknrolla).
In the midst of all this, Conor receives a surprise visit: the large yew tree next to the local church comes to life (and is voiced by a particularly growl-y Liam Neeson, Taken), marches over to Conor’s bedroom window and announces that he will be making return visits in the nights ahead. The tree – billed as “The Monster” – says that in the near future, he will tell Conor three different stories. After this, he insists that Conor tell him a story… and demands that the story be truthful.
The Monster’s stories – moody fairy tales aided by striking animated imagery – all have thematic parallels with different things happening in Conor’s life, even if Conor isn’t always able to see the connections right away. The stories give him a way to process much of what is happening in his life, and sometimes enable him to see difficult situations from a different angle. However, finding a way to co-exist with his grandmother and dealing with school bullies are minor problems in contrast to facing up to the potential loss of his mother.
There’s no denying the raw emotional power of the film’s climax, or the impressive sensitivity with which it examines the overwhelming agony of grief and loss. However, A Monster Calls is just a bit too eager to ensure that you don’t miss the subtext, often spelling out exactly what it’s trying to say when a slightly subtler approach would have had more power. There’s a lack of trust in the audience, though this may partially be due to the fact that the film is actually intended for children to a much greater degree than Pan’s Labyrinth was.
The cast does fine work, with young MacDougall turning in a particularly strong performance. He effectively captures the potent combination of rage, confusion and deflation that threatens to overwhelm his character, and is persuasive in his scenes opposite a computer-generated tree. Jones traces her character’s arc with affecting grace, and Sigourney Weaver (sporting a surprisingly decent British accent) has some very strong moments late in the film (her best scene has no dialogue at all, as she silently reacts to a particularly destructive outburst from Conor). Neeson delivers the gravitas his role requires, of course, though The Monster never becomes as compelling in his own right as, say, Pan (sorry).
A Monster Calls (Blu-ray) offers a fine 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The image’s slightly soft look prevents this from being a real showcase disc, but detail is strong, colors are rich and healthy and black levels are impressively deep. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a knockout, delivering a truly immersive surround-sound experience (all the rumbling and rustling that accompanies The Monster’s is particularly well-presented). Supplements include two audio commentaries (one in Spanish from Bayona, one in English from Patrick Ness), six very brief featurettes (“Introduction,” “Building the Story,” “Bringing the Monster to Life,” “The Perfect Cast,” “Working with J.A. Bayona” and “Making of the Tales”), deleted scenes, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
A Monster Calls isn’t quite the modern classic it clearly wants to be, but it’s an impressive film with some exceptionally moving moments. Recommended.