Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of this article.
Two of the most difficult things, I feel, you can teach a child is that they can try their absolute hardest yet still not succeed, or even fail, and that when it comes to suffering or illness, there is no magical solution to make everything better. Lewis MacDougall's Conor O'Malley learns a little bit of both the hard way in A Monster Calls, a surprisingly dour but brutally honest look at sickness and how even in the limitless boundaries of one's imagination, there's an inevitability that exists on the outside.
Conor is forced to cope with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones), who has been sick and getting worse for the past few months, in addition to his frigid and bitter grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and a local bully at his boarding school (James Melville). Conor is disgusted with life for dealing him such a horrible hand, until he's visited by a large, humanoid monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), made up of tree-branches, roots, and sod, who demands to tell him three stories that work to inspire Conor to take back the control of his life that he lost.
In most conventional fables, Conor would become mightier than his enemies, outsmart them continuously, and find an easy route to happiness. Writer Patrick Ness (the author of the book of the same name), however, knows how far-fetched and contrived this idea is, so when we see Conor work to disobey his grandmother and get back at the bully who has tormented him, we don't see Conor's behavior or emotions awash with a certain gratification. The inevitable decline of his mother's health still puts him in a frustrated mood, for he's at that age when he begins to realize that some things are never in his full control. The monster exists, not as a storytelling device prompted to inspire "awes" on command, but to instill that knowledge into him.
A Monster Calls
Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones
6 January 2016
Steve's Grade: B
A Monster Calls' dense themes work to make up for the occasionally uncharismatic characters and the consistently drab scenery, both of which would be heavy detractors from the film's quality otherwise. It doesn't help A Monster Calls' case for existence due to the fact that we were bombarded by films of similar breed last year (The BFG, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Pete's Dragon, and Kubo and the Two Strings to some degree), for the "man and beast" genre has considerably taken flight over the last year.
MacDougall gives a tremendously capable performance here, giving a far more well-rounded scope of emotions and triumphs than Oakes Fegley or Neel Sethi did in Pete's Dragon or The Jungle Book, respectively. Part of the handicaps the latter two actors faced were due in-part to screenplay, but their inexperience showed in the more sentimental moments of the film. Here, MacDougall is encompassed by a dark, twisted environment, playing a companion to a Groot-like monster that speaks with the thunderous qualities of a bad summer storm, and the emotional range of confusion, angst, contentment, and a general feeling of being distraught that he has to undergo is quite remarkable.
Neeson is ideal for the monster because if we know anything about the sixty-four year old Hollywood veteran, it's that his voice has the power to captivate solely on its presence, and he transfers it in a way that, again, recalls The Jungle Book and how the voice actors used their vocals to transcend into powerful monologues and moments. Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver do a fine job in the supporting cast, but they're also not tasked to do much out of their wheelhouse. Jones essentially personifies a ticking timeclock of sickness, while Weaver gives another rendition of the cantankerous codger whose esoteric home and knick knacks should not with be toyed.
The leverage A Monster Calls has over its contemporaries is its ability to be a fantastical story while infusing very adult themes in the mix, and presenting us with a wide emotional range without ever being oppressively bleak. The only counterpoint to that I've found - which lends to one of my heaviest criticisms just in general - is I'm not sure who this film is really for in an audience-sense. I wouldn't think of showing a child under eleven or twelve this film, for it's far darker than any of those previously mentioned films, nor do I think many adults will find this story particularly compelling on the basis that its fantasy elements might not feel as immersive to them as the kind of franchise-bent films they are known to enjoy (Harry Potter in particular, which can be credited with spawning this genre in some sense). Perhaps precocious teens and those who discover this film on streaming services months or years from now and question where they were when this film was in theaters are the ultimate target demographic.