A breathtakingly beautiful and dynamic film that typifies the art of visual storytelling in the gothic style. Focus Features’ A Monster Calls directed by J.A. Bayona is nothing short of a Terms of Endearment, in theme anyway, for a new generation. You are certain to laugh and cry your way through the film. Based upon the novel by the same name, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay and conceptualized Siobhan Dowd, Bayona’s adaptation of the novel plays out to be a deep, rich story that will touch the hearts and minds of each and everyone in the audience. For anyone going through the stages of grief, this film will especially ring true and perhaps bring about comfort. Although the protagonist Connor, played by Lewis MacDougal, is twelve years old, this dark melodrama with a plot revolving around terminal illness is not typically something that will appeal to kids of Connor’s age. Despite the fantasy elements and the young protagonist, A Monster Calls is more suited for older teens and adults; however, by the same token, the movie isn’t entirely going to initially appeal to adults since the protagonist is quite young. I screened the movie last night in an auditorium filled with patrons of all ages and there was not one dry eye in the audience. Looking at the film from the outside and analyzing the plot and cast, it would appear that it may not attract droves of people because of the gothic fantasy nature, typically aimed at kids and young teens, with content and theming best suited for older audiences; however, the film truly transcends age barriers and stereotypes to touch those who are young or young at heart.
While most twelve year old boys are busy with school and learning to develop socially or even romantically, or just simply playing video games and having Stephen King type adventures, Connor (MacDougal) is dealing with far more than a kid should every have to deal with. Connor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is very ill and Connor is forced to grow in many ways kids should not quite quickly to take care of her. Not entirely going through this terminal illness alone, Connor has a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who looks in on him and his mother–a grandmother with whom he shares little in common. With Connor’s father settling down in Los Angeles, Connor feels very much alone while dealing with his mother’s illness. Expressing his emotions and thoughts through water color and sketch artwork, Connor uses his penchant for beautiful art as a form of therapy. Just when all seems lost, an unexpected ally in the form of a rather gothic tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) appears in his window one night. Apprehensive at first, Connor befriends the monster who guides him on a journey of courage, truth, and faith that combine in a powerful fusion of imagination and reality.
This is certainly a year for fantastic monsters and fantasy, isn’t it? However, A Monster Calls is definitely not your typical fantasy. It deals with deep emotions, dark themes, and material usually better suited for adults. Why then choose such a young protagonist? Perhaps the author Patrick Ness wanted to reach those kids who are going through tough times and who are dealing with situation that most kids won’t face until they are much older. Some kids are just forced to grow up more quickly than others. It’s important that cinema and literature not forget them because words on pages or moving pictures may be the only source of comfort, escape, or allegory. Director J.A. Bayona appears to have successfully translated the novel to screen–from what I know. Interesting that the movie opens with the narrator describing Connor as being too old to be a kid but to young to be an adult. By extension, that is precisely where this movie fits in. It’s too “old” to be a kid’s movie but too “young” to be an adult movie. And that’s okay. Growing up is hard, and when faced with a family member or close friend with a terminal illness, life is exponentially more difficult emotionally and even psychically. Unconventional as it may seem, this film is powerful and transcends the age spectrum to provide a strong emotional journey that audiences can appreciate and from which people may receive comfort. If for no other reason, having a kid starring in a melodrama brings audiences of all ages together–many who may be going through something similar as the child, parent, spouse, or lover of someone who is terminally ill. It’s okay to grieve and let go.
From the opening credits alone, I was confident that this was going to be a visually stunning movie. The water color animation and brushstrokes are reminiscent of the story of the three brothers in Harry Potter. Absolutely beautiful. Much in the same way Kubo and the Two Strings was an innovative animated film, A Monster Calls also contains unconventional and innovative methods of telling its story. Similar to how the animated story of the three brothers in Harry Potter was integrated into the diegesis of a live action movie, so it is with this film. The more I thought about the technical and emotional elements of A Monster Calls, it is clear that it’s truly a dynamic means of cinematic art. Dynamic in that there are three different types of storytelling methods used diegetically each highlighting a different form of art: (1) motion pictures (2) visual art (3) oral storytelling. It’s been said that the novel is an extension of oral storytelling, the play an extension of the novel, and motion pictures an extension of the play. At the root of all those methods of communicating through art is the very concept of storytelling. And A Monster Calls has the art of storytelling in spades. There are so may levels to the diegesis in this film; much like an onion or matryoshka doll, this film has a message of how to deal with grief at its core but there are many different routes to get to that central theme. Each layer teaches Connor and the audience something different and valuable. The cinematic storytelling elements of direction, cinematography, editing, and score are all equally beautiful.
Structurally, A Monster Calls is an intimate story reinforced and surrounded by artistic German expressionism calling attention to its own artifice. From the exterior shots to interior rooms, the various sets appear to be meticulously constructed on a stage and the wardrobe much like perfect costumes. The art tells the story effectively with little exposition required. Fernando Velazquez’ score is so incredibly moving that you may find yourself listening to the score as it too truly assist in the overarching means of telling this story. The design of the monster is brilliant and ominous all at the same time. Almost animatronic in nature, the tree plays out like there is a puppeteer on the inside articulating the movements. The monster feels just as much like an actor as the actors playing the human characters. Liam Neeson was a perfect choice to cast as the tree’s voice. His deep bass is comforting, warm, and wise-sounding. But just who is the tree (in the story)? Although we are never told whose spirit inhabits the tree that has seen thousands of years go by, there are a couple of hints as to who it might be if you pay close enough attention to subtleties in the film. At the end of the day, whether it’s the spirit of someone or the personified life of the tree itself, it is of little consequence to the movie. Still, its definitely fun and interesting to talk about as my friend and I did after the film.
If you enjoy movies such as The Iron Giant, The Giving Tree, or Terms of Endearment, then you will immensely enjoy this film. Presently in advanced screenings and limited releases, you may need to wait a few weeks before it is at a theatre near you. Although slated for a January wide-release, it may make its way through many markets before then. Originally set for an October release, it makes since to have held it until Oscar season since this is one of those films that could grab the attention of the academy. Definitely bring your tissues.