By Quentin Basnaw
Remember whimsical tales where a giant tree wakes you up at night and gives you an ultimatum, and through that ultimatum, you discover things about yourself and life? No? Was that just me and the main character of this film? Oh… well, A Monster Calls is a wonderful film for the family. Directed by J.A. Bayona, the film depicts a boy’s struggles with his mother’s terminal illness, and how a, well, Liam Neeson-esque giant tree monster helps him cope with the crippling feelings of loss and displacement that come with it. The director and assembled cast take us on a ride of fantasy and pain, happiness and sorrow, and, finally, disillusionment and acceptance.
First off, the cast for the film are all talented actors and they portray their roles well. We have Lewis MacDougall (Pan) as Conor, the boy dealing with his mother’s terminal illness. Felicity Jones (Rogue One) portrays said mother with an enthusiasm and endearment towards her son that is wonderful to see. Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Avatar) plays Conor’s authoritarian grandmother who takes custody of Conor. I had no idea Sigourney Weaver was going to be in the movie, and when I saw her name in the opening credits I was amped up. She did not disappoint. Last but not least, we have Liam Neeson (Taken) as the wise, sarcastic, loving, crazy, giant tree monster that helps Conor by telling him stories of moral ambiguity.
What I think works for the film is its mature themes it deals with for children. However, I think that the mature themes are explained at times in a redundant and force fed manner. I was stunned when I found out this was PG-13 after my viewing, because the film never goes “too far” in either direction to make it a kids film or a film that feels “worthy” for adults. It’s an odd limbo where I feel kids should be watching this more than adults, but people may find it “too emotionally complicated” for children. I think the themes the film touches on are important lessons for children to learn, and they aren’t a bad reminder for adults either. The fact Liam Neeson is the one providing the life advice is an added bonus.
Another aspect I enjoyed in this film was its use of watercolor-esque animation to tell certain moral stories to Conor. It’s the same kind of technique they used to tell the tale of the Deathly Hollows in the first part of the seventh Harry Potter film. It was wonderful there, and it’s wonderful in this film. I love that style, and The images just exude wonder, making you actually feel like you are listening/imagining the stories being told.
The one thing I will fault the film on is its pacing. It can be a little jarring in its set up. I wish that a couple of scenes could be one or two seconds longer. I know, “one or two seconds” sounds insignificant, but in a film, every single frame and second tells a story or conveys something to the audience. Often, I think movies want to keep running times down or move on from more “mundane” things, like a character staring off into the distance thinking. I think if there were a few precious seconds added in for an actor to do their job, it would make me connect with characters more. As A Monster Calls goes on, the pacing and connection with the characters improve, but the beginning left me a little alienated from the story.
Overall, I think A Monster Calls is worth seeing with family. Even if a kid is eight years old, they would benefit from seeing this movie. At times, the film does a good job at conveying how many of us have felt as children, and I applaud it for that. Brave the cold and watch this movie!