A Monster Calls
A gorgeous, sincere and deeply affecting fable featuring a phenomenal vocal performance from Liam Neeson.
It's such a simple thing, putting pencil to paper and finding yourself in another world. With a few flicks of the hand, a page can conjure up all of your wildest dreams, lay bare the deepest worries lurking in your subconscious, or even combine the two. Exploring that experience in a published novel and then a feature film isn't quite as simple, but in A Monster Calls, the end result remains every bit as insightful and cathartic.
If you were to mash together the bedtime story from The Princess Bride, the stunning gothic images from Pan's Labyrinth, the oversized non-human pal from Pete's Dragon, and the quest to conquer childhood fears from Labyrinth, you'd almost end up with A Monster Calls – although the key word there, of course, is 'almost'. Adapted by director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) from Patrick Ness' book, the film might ostensibly follow in the footsteps of plenty of other coming-of-age adventures and sensitive adolescent journeys. Yet its heartfelt awareness of the difficulties of tussling with life's complexities remain wholly its own.
Here, things couldn't seem bleaker for British schoolboy Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall). His beloved mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer, his father (Toby Kebbell) has a new family in America, and he's far from fond of the strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) he's told he'll eventually have to live with. Trying to put on a brave face at home but mercifully bullied in class, sketching provides Conor much-needed coping mechanism, as well as a way of remaining close to his art-loving mum. Then his scribblings and his nightmares combine, with a monstrous tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) coming to life to tell him three tales, while also demanding to hear one in return.
Further tying Conor's drawings and dreams together, Bayona brings the latter to the screen in a series of gorgeously animated sequences, with inky scrawled heroes and villains cavorting through vibrant watercolour backgrounds. If you're going to adapt a book about vivid imaginings in times of personal trouble, then your movie has to look the part, after all. Indeed, as a literal visual illustration of the power of creativity to help process life's woes, A Monster Calls excels.
But it's not just the images that Bayona gets right — it's the emotions as well. Alongside Ness' winning work turning his own novel into a script, that largely comes down to the performances. Jones is raw yet subtle, while MacDougall's sorrow is positively palpable. And don't underestimate the impact of Neeson's gravelly tones. There's something so sincere and affecting about the way the Irish actor imparts the tough but true wisdom at the movie's core. While we might better know him these days for his hard-as-nails characters in films like Taken and The Grey, he's just as perfect as the beating dark heart of this tender and touching fable.