I am the giving tree, and I am going to kill your Mom.
A Monster Calls is a film in between two ends of a spectrum. Its protagonist is, as the trailer reminds us, “too young to be a kid, but too young to be a man.” The movie itself is perhaps too dark for kids, but too child-oriented for adults. And the release date is too late to be an awards contender, but too early to be a January genre film. However, despite all of this, A Monster Calls establishes itself as a movie not to be ignored.
Adapted by Patrick Ness from their children’s book, the film has a ridiculously sad yet ridiculously simple concept. A single mother (Felicity Jones) gets cancer, and her preteen, self-sufficient son (Lewis MacDougall) is struggling to deal with this. Constantly suffering from night terrors, a giant tree monster (Liam Neeson (who is not Groot)) visits him. The monster tells him three stories over the course of the next few days and demands a fourth story – “the truth” – from the child.
While watching A Monster Calls, I felt like I was just rewatching the trailer with some more context. Given its straightforward plotline, I doubt that this movie will be very memorable in the long run. However, for the 110 minutes that I was in the movie theater, I was captivated. In lesser hands, this story would have felt deserving of a much shorter runtime, but there is so much visual and emotional complexity that the film never feels overlong.
Much of this seems to be the doing of director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), who has constructed a voyeuristic tale that celebrates both the necessity of loss and the complicated nature of storytelling. All of the technical elements fall into place right where you want them to. The cinematography, sound mixing and special effects all work in a cohesive manner to construct a magical experience. While the movie may be small in scope, it’s also extraordinarily intimate.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is that much of the film involves a young boy yelling at a CGI tree. A Monster Calls rests on the back of Lewis MacDougall’s performance, and MacDougall nails it. He yells, screams and cries his way through the film, holding his own if not surpassing many of the other formidable performances (including a well placed Sigourney Weaver). More than simply the ability to emote, however, MacDougall has clear and defined relationships with each character in the movie, making the motivations easy to follow.
In a lot of ways, A Monster Calls is the anti-fairy tale. One of the routes that the film uses to pad its run time is stories within the story. Lion Neeson narrates gorgeously animated stories that attempt to deconstruct the dichotomy between good and evil. These stories intentionally subvert the concepts of heroism and villainy and acknowledge that sometimes bad things are outside of our control. The only disappointment is that as the movie ramps up to its third story, it aims smaller rather than larger.
It would be a mistake to say that when A Monster Calls hides in between definitions, it is not making a choice. The film is very decisive at every moment, and while it’s not really a movie for anybody, I suspect many people will enjoy it (or at least go see it). However, I don’t know if it will stick for all that many people. The emotions are powerful, but they are also not anything new.