A Monster Calls (2017) – Review

It would probably be erroneous to label A Monster Calls a children’s film, yet there can surely be no denying it’s aimed in a large way, at least thematically, at the younger minds among us. It is a coming-of-age story with monsters, after all.

That being the case, this is some seriously heavy stuff to digest. Bullying, death, loss of childhood, emotional pain, coming-of-age amidst adversity – these are just a few of the ideas tackled during the story of young Connor (Lewis MacDougall) attempting to understand and navigate his way through this tumultuous thing we call life, as school tormentors, a cancer-stricken mother, an overseas father and an inability to connect with his stern grandmother take their overwhelming toll. Heavy, that is, but important, as our titular monster (Liam Neeson) is to gradually reveal through its morally ambiguous fables intended to reveal inner truths to Connor.

And this is where the film really excels. These breathtaking, majestic stories, told through beautiful animation which captures the look, feel and soul of the book to a tee, are the moral driving-force, and it’s no surprise they’re the most engaging moments in a film whose most engaging moments are when a little boy speaks to a tree monster, rather than his dying mother. A lot of credit should go to Neeson for bringing the monster to such vivid life, but that still doesn’t quite explain why these human interactions (even the more touching ones) somehow fail to elicit much of a response.

The film is written by the novella’s author, Patrick Ness, and that, at least, means the whole thing is coming from the right place. There’s never a sense that A Monster Calls has lost sight of what’s really important about its story in favour of kid-impressing fantasy and the more two-dimensional stuff like pretty special effects. Not that it’s without these things – and director J.A. Bayona certainly gives the whole thing real visual heft (akin to his work on The Impossible) – but it understands that, more than anything, it’s about enduring through adversity.

So it’s a disappointment that even with this understanding, it feels like there’s something missing. Too often the film appears to be going through the motions to get to the next monster sequence – and even writing that feels harsh (perhaps I’m too close to the book) – but there’s definitely something a bit flat about Connor’s human interactions. In a way, I suppose it feels like the film is simply transcribing the story of the book, rather than embracing it as its own.


Verdict:

Affecting in moments with some beautiful animation and plenty of important things to say about childhood, there’s a lot to like about A Monster Calls. Yet it falls sporadically flat – crucially during the seemingly heart-wrenching finale – and is, ultimately, unable to fully capture the magic of the book.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

1 Comment

  • Lauren January 4, 2017 at 6:33 pm:

    The animation really did it for me too – stayed so true to the book. And I must admit – I shed a tear during the ‘inner truth’ scene nearer to the end.

    Reply

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