Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness and directed by J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), 2016’s ‘A Monster Calls’ is far from being the simplistic creature-feature it’s title may imply. Instead, this imaginative and soul-stirring drama balances it’s mature themes and fairytale-esque elements to deliver an engrossing and incredibly moving story, which despite its many positive reviews, has mostly gone unmentioned by many film fanatics since it’s initial release.
Plot Summary: After realising his mother is dying from terminal cancer, twelve-year-old: ‘Conor O’Malley’ struggles to accept that he soon may have to live in a world without his caring mum. Until, later that night, when ‘Conor’ is visited by a tree-like monster in what he believes to be a dream, ‘Conor’ sees an opportunity to save his mother as the creature tells the boy he will heal her after he listens to his three stories.
Focusing on heavy themes of family and loss, the film adaptation of: ‘A Monster Calls’ follows its source material very closely, with only a few small differences. One of these alterations being some additional scenes that were written exclusively for the film, including one scene that takes-place immediately after the ending of the novel. But with the original author Patrick Ness writing the film’s screenplay, this accuracy shouldn’t be too surprising. However, interestingly, it wasn’t Patrick Ness who originated the story, as the novel was actually started by Siobhan Dowd, who sadly left it unfinished after her death, leaving Ness to complete the novel in 2011, yet Dowd is still credited as the creator of the original idea during the film’s end credits.
While the film’s supporting cast of Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell and Liam Neeson as the voice of: ‘The Monster’ are all superb in their various roles, its Lewis MacDougall who takes on the lead role as ‘Conor’, which is by no means an easy feat considering his age. As ‘Conor’ is a fairly complex character, being a young boy dealing with a very difficult situation he doesn’t fully understand, unwilling to accept that is mother is in constant pain, and more than likely, won’t be able to recover from her sickness. ‘Conor’s young age also makes his outbursts of rage/sorrow more understandable, as nearly every viewer can probably recall the difficulty of attempting to control their emotions when they themselves were a child. The now sought-after actor Tom Holland also has a small role in the film, as Holland actually served as the stand-in for: ‘The Monster’ on-set, following his previous collaboration with Bayona on ‘The Impossible’ in 2012.
The film’s cinematography by Oscar Faura not only manages to capture the true scale of: ‘The Monster’ at many points, but also allows for a large array of visually-appealing shots, effectively utilising everything from extreme close-ups to aerial wide-shots to increase the story’s overall spectacle. The film’s CG effects aren’t quite as impeccable however, as there are a noticeable amount of CGI-heavy moments which have suffered (if only slightly) from the film’s age.
Although the story of: ‘A Monster Calls’ is very powerful on-itself, there is no denying it is greatly elevated by Fernando Velázquez’s original score. As many of the film’s accompanying tracks such as: ‘Dad Arrives’, ‘Big Dreams’, ‘The Truth’ and certainly the film’s final track: ‘End Credits’, all massively help to invoke emotion in the viewer, inevitably adding-up to the film’s gut-wrenching conclusion. Any fans of Bayona’s early filmography are also sure to enjoy the film’s quick throwback to the director’s horror-roots, as the score becomes quite dread-inducing during the first scene with ‘The Monster’, as ‘Conor’ remains unsure of the creature’s intentions.
But without a doubt the most impressive aspect of this adaptation has to be ‘The Monster’s stories, as every-time ‘The Monster’ tells ‘Conor’ these fantastical tales, the film takes a dramatic shift from live-action into animation, bringing its stories to-life through water-coloured drawings and sketches, which not only plays into ‘Conor’ and his mother’s flair for artistry, but these sequences are also when the film is at its most creative, having the camera fly through splurges of paint and water, engulfing the viewer in an array of magnificent colours and locations alike.
To conclude, ‘A Monster Calls’ is truly a touching and prodigious film. Whilst perhaps not completely flawless in its execution, mostly due to its unexplored side characters and occasional piece of hand-held camerawork, I feel most would find it impossible to not relate to the story in someway. As it’s sublime performances, enchanting visuals and beautiful original score all serve their purpose of complimenting the film’s narrative, which is just as captivating as it’s novel counterpart. And for me, ‘A Monster Calls’ still reigns as my personal favourite film from J. A. Bayona, and I’m hopeful the film will become a window of opportunity for Patrick Ness as a successful screenwriter. Final Rating: low 8/10.