Review: ‘A Monster Calls’ is a Timeless Examination of Childhood Grief

"A Monster Calls" (2016) - Movie Review

A Monster Calls a Whirlwind of Adolescent Emotions

Based on the 2011 Patrick Ness novel of the same name, A Monster Calls dwells in an obscure limbo between the distinctive realms of child and adult fantasy. Like Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed Pans Labyrinth, A Monster Calls is coupled with a haunting sense of duality, while shattering your heart in the process.

In A Monster Calls, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is faced with various turmoils at this specific point in his life. His mother (Felicity Jones) is slowly succumbing to a terminal illness. He also has to deal with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) on a daily basis, whose commanding presence is clashing and intimidating to the young adolescent. His estranged father (Toby Kebbell) has remained distant and only enters the picture when matters take a turn for the worse. And in typical coming-of-age fashion, there’s a nasty bully at school tormenting him relentlessly.

It’s a mountain of misery for Conor with terrible life events around every corner. Fortunately for him, every night at 12:07, the yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) outside comes to life, telling him fairy tales that hit awfully close to home. Conor doesn’t really understand the parallels of the stories, nor the complexity and the monster keeps character motivations ambiguous to the very end. In every instance, it’s more of a framing exercise, expressing at last “there isn’t always a good guy and a bad guy.”

Like the spectacular Manchester by the Sea earlier this year, A Monster Calls excels at being a somber portrait of grief for adolescents. Yet due to its dark fantasy elements, you wouldn’t be content without asking is this truly a film for children? With a talking tree as a key player, the first recollection would be the Ents from The Lord of the Rings or Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Once you push the “I am Groot” equivalents out of your mind, you begin to realize the marketing campaign for A Monster Calls is highly misleading.

SEE ALSO: TIFF 2016 Review: A Monster Calls

Director J.A. Bayona is no stranger to directing films about grief, loss and turmoil. After successes with The Orphanage and The Impossible, there is no better director to tackle to weight of this film’s adolescent trauma. He encompasses a duality that’s executed with such care and precision that the fantasy segments feel dreamlike and lifelike simultaneously.

Those segments are something to behold – simply a breathtaking experience. Visualized through eye-popping watercolors, they have a beautifully, poignant identity to them where wonder and fantasy are essential. The Monster is a fine technical achievement harnessed by Neeson’s pulling double duty as voice talent and motion capture actor. Neeson’s done voice talent before in The Chronicles of Narnia trilogy, but here is the full experience. His stellar acting plus his noteworthy “voice of God” tone breathe so much life into this CG character.

If anything is worth breaking out of A Monster Calls, it’s the heartbreaking performance of young Lewis MacDougall. Once again in 2016, we have another young actor given a top-notch script and running relentlessly with the ball. Much of A Monster Calls hinges on MacDougall’s performance and there is not one scene where he falters. It’s a difficult role for such a young actor, but alongside the likes of Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell, he’s already a pro.

A Monster Calls is no easy sit without breaking out the waterworks. Part Pan’s Labyrinth, part The Fault in Our Stars, it’s a full immersion of grief wrapped up in a poignant fantasy. The situations in A Monster Calls are difficult subjects to toy around with in a film aimed at children and young adults. Even if it’s dressed in fantastical elements, that doesn’t take away from being confronted with the fears of reality.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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