A child’s imagination is a powerful thing, they think in their own way, and in many cases, create their own realities. When faced with difficult situation, it is those separate realities that they use to escape to. This is what is at the center of A Monster Calls, a story of a young preteen, whose mother is suffering from cancer, and whose situation is becoming noticeably worse. The story centers around Connor O’Malley, played by Lewis MacDougall, and his encounter with a monster, thousands of years old, voiced by Liam Neeson, that tells him 3 tales meant to help him save his mother, with the promise that Connor will then tell him the truth of his ultimate nightmare. The story weaves between Connor’s day to day life, as he deals with his mother’s illness, his strict and overbearing grandmother, his absentee father, and the school bully who torments him relentlessly. These elements are then paired with three fables, and it is easy to see how each one of those stories connects to Connors real life struggles. The stories are told through magnificent water-color animations, that are simplistic yet beautiful, and tie nicely into the artwork that Connor creates in his own life, as a way to cope with all that is going on around him. While the story is very basic, and the ties between the real and the imaginary is clear and distinct, it is all told with such heart and genuine emotion that the film stands as greater than the sum of its parts.
The reason that the film is elevated above what it could have been is because of the cast. Macdougall is a wonderful young actor, and is able to convey every emotion needed for this character to display, and none of it feels cheesy, or inauthentic. If not for a solid performance, the film would have fallen apart, and ended up as a generic tale that does not resonate. Connor instead comes across as an absolutely tortured child, he lives only with his single mother, who even he can see is losing the battle against time, and her disease. He knows that this means he will need to live with his Grandmother, who he does not think kindly of, while wishing that he could instead move to America with his father, who cannot take him because he has started a new family. Each of these issues is cause for different emotion, fear, anger, and disappointment, and MacDougall is able to put them all on display through both is vocal, and non-vocal acting. The other main character, The Monster, is another highpoint of the film, Neeson’s voice brings gravitas to the character, and gives each of the stories the sense that they have taken place over thousands of years, and are as old as the tree monster claims to be. The stories themselves, are not bad, and while they are clearly meant to be parallels to Connor’s life, they do not always come across as nicely as they ought to. Sigourney Weaver as Connor’s Grandmother, is ok in the role, though she never comes off as evil as she is supposed to be, and doesn’t really do enough to make you feel about her the way Connor does, which makes the character seem flat. The same for the father, Toby Kebbell, whose character is a very stereotypical absentee parent character, as he shows up once, makes empty promises, and then leaves Connor to deal with his impending loss seemingly alone. The emotional kick of the film comes from Connor’s Mom, portrayed by an amazing Felicity Jones, and while her screen time is not overly plentiful, every scene she is in helps build this amazing mother-son relationship, and the pain in her eyes that she knows what is going to happen, all while trying to keep her son from admitting to that same awful truth, is something special to see.The other standout aspect of this film is the aesthetic, the look of the small english town, from the homes, to Connor’s school, help create a specific world that all fits together within this film. The look of the monster itself also fits right into the world, and while it is not the only giant tree monster in recent cinematic history, it does have its own unique feel to it, something that is helped by Neeson’s voice, as the performance has a power to it. The splicing in of the animated segments also helps break up the film, as they are very stylistic, and the way that they still tie to the real world makes it so that it doesn’t take you out of the story, but helps to further pull you in.
The film does have its faults, the Father, and Grandmother being two of them, along with the bullying angle, which is again a paint by numbers, bully story, and given everything else that Connor deals with in this film, seems a bit like overkill, though it is understandable to include, given the nature of three stories being told. None of these elements however take away from how good MacDougall, Neeson, and Jones make this film however, as the three leads shine to make A Monster Calls one of the most emotional, and heartbreaking films, during the season where every film tries to garner genuine emotion from the audience, and yet it also crafts a good story around those emotional story beats, to create a beautiful film, both emotionally, and visually.