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The opening sequence of A Monster Calls had some seriously familiar bits of imagery that emulate the opening sequence of Bridge to Terabithia. That is in no way a negative thing, as both Josh Hutchinson’s Jessie and Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) are brilliant artists. We learn later on in the film that he got this talent from his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones). This is simultaneously an important point and a not-so important point, insofar that A Monster Calls is about a young boy struggling to come to terms with his mum’s terminal illness. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay for this movie), A Monster Calls is a tremendous look at a slice of quintessentially English life from the perspective of a child with no siblings, a school-boy bully, an estranged father who ran off to America and remarried, a grandmother whom he doesn’t get on with at all, and a mum who is slowly dying. It is, without sugar-coating it in the slightest, quite depressing on the face of things, and it’s a testament to Ness that he didn’t go darker with the source material, as Conor had more than enough bad things happening at once for it to be entirely understandable.
Conor’s saving grace is the Monster whom he calls (hence the title). Again, I’m going to draw comparisons with Bridge to Terabithia. Although that fantastic 2007 film starring Hutchinson and AnnaSophia Robb was arguably a lot lighter than this one, the comparison I wish to point out is that both Conor and Jessie have brilliant imaginations, which they use to escape the hardships of their every day lives. And the monster that Conor calls is a huge Yew tree, so if you’ve got hylophobia, then don’t watch this film, as the special effects for the Monster are wonderfully realistic. Also, because it’s a Monster, he looks quite fearsome, his presence is all-consuming, and his voice is a powerful tool, wielded by none other than Liam Neeson. Now, as an aside, whether Neeson went straight from filming Silence to this film is something I can only speculate, but because that’s my own movie-going experience here, it demonstrates the breadth of Neeson’s acting capabilities like never before. And I say never before, because this is something that Neeson hasn’t ever done before. We’re all familiar with his deep, baritone voice, and it was put to perfect use as the Monster.
The Monster, though, is not as terrible as it first seems. Initially one would think that the Monster is real, and not just a figment of Conor’s imagination, but due to his propensity to destroy any room he enters (he’s taller than a house, yet can alter his size if he so wishes), there would certainly be a danger of the story going in a completely different direction. As it happens, the Monster ‘comes alive’ through Conor’s drawing (again, a bit like in Bridge to Terabithia, at least to an extent), and visits Conor at 12:07 at night. This becomes important later on, too. At first, it isn’t clear what the Monster wants, but it soon transpires that he is going to tell Conor three separate stories, which will culminate in Conor telling the Monster a fourth story: the truth behind his recurring nightmare. The stories that the Monster recounts are vivid, colourful, and are weighted with meaning, both subliminal and cryptic. There is never a clear-cut answer to the stories; they are always two-pronged, which simultaneously makes them informative and useful, but also obscure and frustrating for trying to understand the point that the Monster is trying to get across. This, however, is to the film’s overall credit, because if the stories had been straightforward and bland with obvious answers, then they wouldn’t have serviced the film as well as they did.
A similarity that A Monster Calls has with another film is that of the stories themselves. They were told through the medium of animation, but the kind of animation that you witnessed when Hermione (Emma Watson) told the tale of the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. This was an interesting way in which to do it, because not only was it in keeping with A Monster Calls‘ signature style of the drawings being a backdrop to the story, but it also meant that the creative team did not have to employ more actors for these minor roles that would have been nothing but cameos. Due to this, they were able to keep to a relatively small cast and keep it in the family, technically speaking. We do get various scenes of Conor at school, and him having to contend with a bully who picks on him as his two mates stand there and laugh and occasionally help to kick Conor to the ground (in one case literally). This is something that has been done so often that it has become ad nauseam, and if there is one aspect of this J. A. Bayona directed movie, I would say it’s the bully. Nevertheless, overall, this is a great film. A Monster Calls is haunting, powerfully emotive, wildly creative, and will give you all the feels. Have tissues ready.
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