During the opening moments of the new fantasy drama A Monster Calls from Spanish director, J.A. Bayona, the film asks one simple question: How does it begin? A base-deep, though not unfriendly voice, replies, “It begins, like so many stories; with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man. And a nightmare.”
The boy having the nightmare is an English child with an Irish name called Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougal). The ground beneath the cemetery, not far from his home, right next to the centuries-old, giant yew tree, is opening up as though an earthquake has suddenly occurred. The church building cracks and falls apart, then crumbles to the ground. And Connor is there, in the cemetery by the grave stones, clinging by his fingers for his life on the edge of one of the giant cracks, terrified, and he’s about to fall into the gaping, black abyss below. Then, with a gasp, he awakens. He’s in his own bed, and he realizes that, once again, he’s had the same nightmare.
It’s a strong, dark opening that gives no clues as to what is to come, except maybe one. Those opening minutes establish that, despite its title and the overall fantasy design of the poster, A Monster Calls may develop into something a little too grim for children and an oddity for adults, particularly once the film’s setup is revealed.
Connor’s divorced mother (Felicity Jones, getting better with every performance) has terminal cancer and struggles to look after her boy while she deals with her illness. He’s cruelly bullied at school and bossed by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, oddly cast with a so-so, clipped English accent). All of this has caused Connor to become quiet, withdrawn. The only time he feels a sense of joy is when he’s with his mum, sharing evenings together, huddled on the sofa, and watching old movies. Dad (Toby Kebbell) has moved to America to start a new life with a new family and is no longer a part of Connor’s life.
In one particularly sweet scene of shared love and companionship, Connor and his mother watch the original King Kong. “Why are they trying to kill King Kong?” the boy asks as the giant ape on the screen attempts to wave away the attacking biplanes while clinging for its life atop of the Empire State Building. “People try to kill what they don’t understand,” his mother replies. “They get frightened.”
It’s later when the monster calls. Brought alive from the giant yew tree as though Connor’s anguish has somehow stirred its very being and called out to it, the monster uproots itself from the ground, develops limbs and approaches the boy’s bedroom window, clomping and crushing everything in its path. It reaches into the boy’s room, and, like King Kong who grabbed that unsuspecting woman from her hotel suite in the 1933 movie, grabs Connor and pulls him out. Voiced by Liam Neesom, the monster tells the boy he has a mission. There will be four stories to tell. The monster will tell Connor three at three different times, and when he’s completed the telling, the fourth is to come from the boy. And the story is to be told is the boy’s recurring nightmare.
The literal minded may have a problem with the monster scenes, particularly as everything looks as though it’s really happening. How is it that his mother looks up during a bittersweet, emotionally-charged moment and appears to actually see the looming giant behind her boy, they might ask. Even though it’s evident that the creature’s appearance has to come from within Connor’s torment, the film isn’t interested in explaining the how’s and why’s of those moments. It doesn’t matter, the film is saying. What’s important is what the monster tells the boy, the themes of the three stories, and the ability for young Connor to finally confront the truth behind the cause of his nightmare.
In truth, the lessons learned from the four stories – wonderfully animated as water colors, populated by characters of a historic, fairy-tale past – range between something simple, then confusing, to eventually a conclusion based on something surprisingly obvious. The first ends with the monster explaining that, “There isn’t always a good guy and not always a bad guy. Sometimes they’re in-between.” Though how Connor is supposed to apply that to his situation is confusing to the boy, and not altogether clear to us. The monster’s other two stories have a more direct effect.
The end of the second story, where the monster invites the boy to smash windows and break walls, results with Connor destroying everything in his grandmother’s overly tidy living room. His anguish is so all-encompassing he doesn’t realize he’s no longer hearing a story. And by the third, at the monster’s urging, Connor lashes out at the school bully in the dining hall, knocking the boy to the ground and repeatedly punching him in the face to the point where the bully has to go to hospital. As for the fourth, that comes from Connor himself and circles back to that nightmare we saw at the beginning; a sum total of all his fears that the monster helps the boy confront.
The script was written by Patrick Ness, adapted from his book. Curiously, the credits state that the story came from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd. Dowd was a British writer, born in London to Irish parents. The theme of a mother dying from cancer was based on the writer’s own terminal illness. She was approached to write a book but died before she could start the story, and the outline was passed to Patrick Ness.
It’s clear that given the background to the creation of the novel, getting the film to the screen had to be something personal to all concerned, but in the end, the simplicity of the lesson learned doesn’t feel quite enough, plus the overall conclusion may befuddle. However, there are positives. Much of the finished work is certainly admirable. Visually the film is impressive throughout, while the dark, emotionally upsetting subject is treated with a welcomed sensitivity. Plus, though never mawkish, as the mother’s illness becomes progressively worse, it would pay audiences to be prepared.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 108 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)