Writer: Patrick Ness (and novel)
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson
Running time: 108mins
What’s the story: Conor, a young boy whose mother is seriously ill with cancer, is visited by a giant tree monster who he thinks can help him.
What’s the verdict: J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls immediately joins The Spirit of the Beehive, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the too-little remembered Paperhouse as a first class film about the power of art and imagination to battle the difficulties of real life.
Or to put it another way, it’s Billy Elliott with a big monster instead of ballet.
It is also one the most effective tearjerkers of recent times, so take a big box of tissues (blokes, that goes for you too).
Conor (MacDougall) has buried every emotion and adopts a blank mask expression that cannot hide the sadness in his eyes. Dad (Kebbell) lives in LA with a new family. He is the class punching bag for a trio of school bullies. And his mum (Jones) is suffering from cancer and aggressive treatments are having little effect.
A promising artist, Conor seeks refuge in drawings that have monsters bested and right prevailing. But, even Conor is surprised when the Yew tree in the graveyard across from his bedroom window springs to thunderous, cantankerous life.
The monstrous tree (voiced by Liam Neeson and mo-capped by current Spider-Man Tom Holland) informs the lad it has three tales to tell him, but a fourth must come from the boy himself as “his truth”.
Maybe the monster can help with his mum’s condition (Yew trees are known for healing properties) and rid Conor of his crotchety grandma (Weaver).
A spellbinding mix of grim reality, naturalism and wonderfully realised fantasy, A Monster Calls is a perfect family movie.
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, it is intelligent and unpatronising, its surprises and emotional climaxes textbook examples of weaving issues and blockbuster style set-pieces into a satisfying whole.
The Monster’s animated three tales are parables without the clear cut lessons of Aesop; messy, full of contradictions, they irrevocably bleed over into Conor’s life. And the Monster himself is a memorable creation, pitched somewhere between Optimus Prime, one of those walking trees from Lord of the Rings (Ents, we know), and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot.
Neeson’s distinctive voice is perfect for the grumbling mentor – his bark is as bad as his… bark – while Jones, Kebbel and Weaver all deliver A-game performances. Jones shines far brighter here than in The Theory of Everything, while Weaver’s accent may wobble but the rawness of her performance sears onto the screen.
The standout is MacDougall as Conor. Shouldering the film, including ambitious effects scenes, he is troublesome without being dislikeable, emotional without being whiny and quite outstanding.
Bayona proves himself once more a worthy protégé of Guillermo del Toro, weaving fantasy into a tale of all-too real mortality. As with The Orphanage and The Impossible, the director is unafraid to give over space for quieter moments of family bonding alongside grand FX sequences, earning his race-against-time climax and a denouement of genuine sensitivity and magic.
When this Monster calls, run to answer it. We’ll leaf it there…
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