A Monster Calls is a mash-up of two reasonably effective films–a weepy cancer drama and an animated children’s fantasy–that never quite adds up to an effective whole. Describing the film’s plot and its origins makes it seems so rich with emotional meaning that it must be a can’t-miss project, yet it does miss, frustratingly so. The film is based on a novel by Patrick Ness and “inspired by an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.” The latter conceived of the idea when afflicted with terminal cancer, and she died before she could write it. While she and Ness have some real wisdom to pass on to parents and children in similar situations, it never evolves beyond the instructional phase. A Monster Calls is painted in poetry but written in prose.
The film is set in England, where Connor (Lewis Macdougall), a quiet young lad, is getting it from all sides. He’s being bullied at school, and things are even worse at home: His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from terminal cancer, and the latest round of treatment hasn’t worked. With her ex-husband thousands of miles away in California, arrangements for him must be made elsewhere. She speaks in hushed tones to his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) about moving him into her home, but Connor isn’t having it. He pushes back against any notion of a permanent change, making the inevitable even more painful than it already is.
Like many troubled boys before him, he finds respite in art. He loses himself in his fantastic drawings, coloring over the written lessons in his school textbooks and making quick, fancy work of blank pages at home. One night, he draws a magnificent tree come to life, and moments later, well, it does. The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) emerges, transformed from an enormous tree in Connor’s yard, and he strikes up a threatening, friendly relationship with the boy.
The Monster, a figment of Connor’s imagination, is vague in his intentions. He’s imposing and violent, but he never seems to mean the boy any harm. That’s because his purpose is to tell Connor the truth that he can’t admit to himself off the page, and the truth is both cathartic and dangerous. He spins yarns about bloodthirsty kings and slain princesses, and each of them comes with a twist to highlight life’s complicated nature. The corrupt king is actually a benevolent ruler, and a greedy apothecary is a good healer. And just in case the message wasn’t clear through the visually-inspired telling–they are gorgeously animated in watercolor brilliance–The Monster explicitly lays out the moral of each story to Connor moments after he’s done telling it. “Life is complicated,” he too plainly tells him.
It’s this on-the-nose storytelling that prevents A Monster Calls, which has much to recommend otherwise, from ever transcending its clunky structure. The film by director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) is psychologically astute and emotionally rich, but it makes everything too clear and doesn’t allow for any of the real mysteries of life and death to shine through. The casting of Neeson is a perfect example. He might seem like a clever choice, but his menacing persona has veered into caricature of late, and his performance is far too obvious to be effective.
And yet I assume it will be effective for its intended audience of children like Connor, who is “too old to be a boy and too young to be a man.” For those kids who lock into its frequency, A Monster Calls could be a film that changes their lives. For the rest of us, it’s a very admirable failure.
Rating: 2 junior-sized burritos out of 5
Featured image: Focus/Universal