A Monster Calls
Directed by: J. A. Bayona.
Written by: Patrick Ness based on his novel, from an idea by Siobhan Dowd.
Starring: Lewis MacDougall (Conor O'Malley), Sigourney Weaver (Mrs. Clayton), Felicity Jones (Elizabeth "Lizzie" Clayton), Toby Kebbell (Mr. O'Malley), Liam Neeson (The "Monster"), James Melville (Harry), Geraldine Chaplin (Head Teacher).
The film stars young Lewis MacDougall as Conor O’Malley – who is probably around 12. He is a loner – an artist and dreamer, and monster fan – whose parents are divorced. His father (Toby Kebbell) has moved to America, and started a new family, and now his mother (Felicity Jones) has cancer. The adults in his life are either not telling Conor the truth, or else he’s unwilling to hear it – his mother is not going to get better this time, as she has in the past.
In his dreams, Conor invents a monster out of the massive yew tree near his house – voiced by Liam Neeson (who also did motion capture work), this tree comes to life, and visits Conor – telling him that at first, the Monster will tell Conor three stories, and when that is over, Conor will have to tell the Monster his own story – his truth – which is a truth so painful Conor doesn’t want to admit it, but a truth that anyone who has watched someone die will relate to. The monster is a visual triumph for director J.A. Bayona – as are the animated sequences in the film, where the monster tells his cryptic stories that Conor doesn’t quite understand (or doesn’t want to).
When I read Patrick Ness’s book – he also wrote the screenplay – I was in tears. It is a powerful book, written for older children, as a way to explain death – and perhaps help them cope with it. When I watched the movie, oddly, I didn’t cry. I don’t think the movie quite taps into that same spot – that deep reservoir of emotion and regret the way the novel did. Like the previous films of his I have seen- The Orphanage and The Impossible – the film is visually impressive, but doesn’t hit as hard emotionally as it should.
I do believe that A Monster Calls is a film – and novel – that children who are going through something painful will relate to. It’s why it will last, because few works of art aimed at children bother to try and explain, or relate to, that pain. Child psychologists and school therapists will have copies of this, and give it to their struggling students – and it will likely help. I just wish it were a little bit better than it is.