A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

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