Film Review: A MONSTER CALLS (USA/Spain 2016) ****

a_monster_calls_movie_poster.jpgDirected by J.A. Bayona

Starring: J.A. Bayona

Writers: Patrick Ness (screenplay), Patrick Ness (based upon the novel written by)

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall

Review by Gilbert Seah

Based on the acclaimed novel by Patrick Ness who also wore the script and served as producer of the film, A MONSTER CALLS must have been a love project from the start and it looks so. A dark, occasionally humorous and exciting film, A MONSTER CALLS reminds one of the best of the horror fantasy films – Guillermo Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH and Nicholas Roeg’s THE WITCHES.

The protagonist of the story is young Conor O’Malley – who we are told by voiceover is too young to be a man and too old to be a boy, (a fresh performance by Lewis MacDougall). Conor has been dealt some of life’s most devastating blows. His mother (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer, his father (Toby Kebbell) is not part of his life and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) offers no consolation. To top it all, he is bullied at school. Conor has nowhere to turn, until he receives a nighttime visit from an enormous, tree-shaped monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). The monster is to help him, but not in a regular way.

The monster declares that it will tell Conor three stories and that when it has finished recounting the tales, Conor must reciprocate with a story of his own. All of the monster’s stories offer a lesson in the complexity of human nature (e.g. the murderous king lives happily ever after and loved by his subjects) and the consequences of the actions — while each of the monster’s visits leaves destruction in its wake. When the time comes for Conor to tell his story, he must confront difficult truths that can no longer be ignored.

The stories told by the monster unfolds on the screen with special effects animation. But the very best effect is very basic – appearing in the boy’s room where three hanging cut out painted pieces of cardboard dangle coming together to form the face of a monster. But it is not only the animation that dazzles (though it does) but the stories themselves. Each is as dark as dark can be and all have an unexpected twist where expectations are thrown to the wind. These stories are so amazing that they almost eclipse the main plot. The main question in every viewer’s mind is how the stories relate to the boy’s real life.

But director Baoyna’s film teases all the way. Where and when is the film set? As the film has a vintage look, one expects a period setting, but then Conor owns a cell phone. One assumes a British setting from the looks of the houses and buildings. This becomes clear as the school is clearly British but still one is never certain which city the film is set. The only clue is the pier and the amusement park nearby. So it could be Brighton but not Blackpool for the lack of the working class accents. Another puzzle occurs at the end of the film when Conor looks at the drawings of a book, with the author’s name Lizzie Caplan in front? Who is this Lizzie?

A MONSTER CALLS proves that a good story is more important than just a movie which dazzles the eye. A MONSTER CALLS has the bonus that it does both. And with the young boy as the protagonist, every adult can sit back and pretend to be young once more, facing and conquering the monsters in life.



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