True visionary directors are few and far between. Fortunately, Guillermo del Toro existed in our lifetime to impart his filmmaking knowledge to an ambitious J. A. Bayona, a relationship that started when Bayona was only 19. Now 41, Bayona has contributed in cinematic eye candy with only 2 full-length features, through the Spanish horror film The Orphanage and the disaster family drama The Impossible. The latter of these titles is composed of a ton of heart that oozes off the screen. However brief his repertoire, Bayona demonstrated enough promise to interpret the novel, A Monster Calls, from the pages to the silver screen. I’m thrilled to say this adaptation was entrusted to the right director in almost every aspect.
A Monster Calls stars newcomer Lewis MacDougall as Conor, a young man struggling to cope with his mother’s terminal illness and how it adversely impacts his already-strained relationship to his grandmother and father. Outside of his home life, Conor also contends with a school bully, seemingly as every child protagonist in film does. As a means to endure, Conor’s imagination conjurs up the titular Monster, who’s voiced by Liam Neeson and whose body consists of tree parts, like Groot but a few buildings taller. Instead of frightening Conor, the Monster openly communicates and shares three stories with the aching child.
As you might gather from the trailer alone, your emotions will be taken for a ride during A Monster Calls. First, you connect immediately to Conor’s plight, which is relatable to any individual who’s experienced loss and/or bullying. Then as the Monster spills details on his three stories, Bayona’s visuals astound you. The contrasting and unique use of color is striking, along with the unconventional animation style that’s reminiscent of a Tim Burton stop-motion animated flick. Separate from the stories’ unique CG, anything that occurs in Conor’s world with the Monster carrying out destruction or shifting the Earth is equally captivating and wondrous to watch. In addition to being awestruck, witnessing Conor’s struggle to accept the potential loss of his mother (played heartbreakingly by Felicity Jones) is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes, even if you don’t normally show emotion during movies.
While I’d normally dissect a picture as much as possible, A Monster Calls doesn’t demand such attention. What you see in the trailer is essentially what you get. There are no earth-shattering surprises, but only an earth-moving monster. Any emotions the film elicits isn’t inspired naturally, but more so forced out of you. This is to be expected based on the heavy subject matter that explores death, but I was nonetheless aware how the movie was actively manipulating my feelings. My criticism (if you consider it a criticism) is merely a nitpick, as I still sobbed with everyone else in the theater when the story demanded it, simply because of how much we’re invested in Conor’s journey.
Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother certainly turns in a fine, albeit brief, performance. Toby Kebbell as Conor’s father also appears too shortly to appreciate. The critical part meant to be analyzed and appreciated is Conor and his relationship to the Monster. The meat of A Monster Calls‘s heart stems from their dialogue and the Monster’s creative stories. Sometimes those stories aren’t intended to have definitive morals, but that resonated healthily with me because that’s true to life. Emotional elements aside, when the plot called for it, Bayona’s directorial choices were apparent and something to be admired. In a crucial, climactic moment where you’d expect the camera to shift perspectives, Bayona opts to stay focused on Conor’s reaction and cut out all sound. I won’t elaborate on what that moment entailed since it involves spoilers, but you’ll know it and respect it when you see it.
This might be one of my shorter reviews, but as I stated, A Monster Calls is a fairly obvious filmic experience. If you expect a certain scene or sequence to occur, it likely will. If you expect you’ll weep publicly at key moments in the story, you likely will. If not, the film will probably force you to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but to me, it is a noticeable quality A Monster Calls possesses. Luckily, there’s more than enough to latch onto thanks to Bayona’s stunning visuals, the Monster’s commanding presence, and MacDougall’s engaging yet heartbreaking lead performance. As far as tear-jerking pictures go, this is definitely a title that lives in the upper echelon, even if there’s not as much to it as I anticipated.