By Thomas Simpson
Dark fantasy meets with an engaging emotional drama in J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls. With a screenplay from Patrick Ness, adapting his own novel, the film tells the heart wrenching story of a young outcast, Conor, (Lewis MacDougal) who struggles to accept that his mother (Felicity Jones) is terminally ill. When he is visited by a terrifying tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), Conor shows little to no fear, standing up to the beast that comes to his window. The Monster tells Conor that he has come to deliver three stories, after which Conor must reciprocate with his own tale, even if it means facing his most darkest fear.
Bayona and Ness waste little time in introducing the audience to Conor’s story. The boy’s plight is set up quickly, outlaying the tragedy in his life which aside from his ill mother, includes a strict grandparent (Sigourney Weaver), a vindictive school bully (James Melville) and his estranged father (Toby Kebbell). It’s a familiar tale with elements that many can identify with which allows us to instantly sympathize with the young Conor.
The twist to this coming of age tale being Conor’s new acquaintance, The Monster. Visually stunning and just the right side of terrifying, The Monster is an impressive beast, stunningly created by the special effects department and brought to life with Neeson’s talent. The Monster’s stories are brilliant allegories that are enthralling in their own right and vividly recreated by the animators. The animation which brings these scenes to the screen are wonderfully drawn and expertly woven into the script. The fantasy elements never feel disjointed from the grounded real world setting as both worlds are magnificently entwined with Conor acting as the bridge.
MacDougal is in outstanding form and it’s difficult to fathom that this is only his second feature film. His performance is excellent as he delivers an engaging intensity and often moving portrayal, much of which was drawn on by his own relationship with his own mother who died shortly before filming began.
Each story told by The Monster complements the plot and allows the film to flow without interruption despite the contrasting image of a giant tree like creature. MacDougal has a magnificent chemistry with Neeson made the more remarkable due to the latter voicing an animated creature. A Monster Calls provides a real feast for the eyes but it’s your heart that its after with a promise to leave you moved before the credits roll.