Reviewed by Nicholas Vandeloecht
Right before I walked into the movie theater to go see A Monster Calls, I get an alert on my phone telling me Jeremy Jahns reviewed that very movie. I had been waiting six months for his take – ever since I saw the richly executed, highly moving trailer for what looked to be this heart-wrenching thrill ride – and it starts off with him saying, “Well, nobody saw this movie…”I hadn’t heard its name mentioned in regards to the top spot on the charts, only that the civil rights-centered true story of Hidden Figures was in the lead and that Underworld (rightfully) wasn’t. But I was like, well, I guess the crowds didn’t rush out to see it. I’m sure it’s getting spatterings of crowds here and there. And then I walked into the movie theater and it was empty. I watched the movie and I indeed saw why.people are missing out on possibly the best movie to open the first full weekend of the New Year.
A Monster Calls isn’t about civil rights. It isn’t about vampires (though it gives a shoutout to witches!) and it isn’t about sending the first human into outer space. What this movie is about is some grim stuff: children dealing with dying parents, children dealing with bullies at school and an off putting grandmother, and, oh, right – children dealing with being haunted by a big #&/*ing tree monster. Life’s rough, buddy.
A Monster Calls is directed by J.A. Bayona and stars budding actor Lewis McDougall as well as a studly cast of Felicity Jones (Rogue One), Sigourney Weaver (Alien) and Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List and my favorite version of Les Miserables). Toby Kebbell also stars as the physically distant father of protagonist Conor O’Malley (played by McDougall). In A Monster Calls, Conor is visited nightly (at 12:07 a.m. to be exact) by the monstrous form of the giant yew tree near his house. This monster, voiced in gravelly form by Neeson, vows to tell Conor three stories, but after he does, Conor must tell him his nightmare. While all this is going on, Conor is dealing with his ailing mum, played by Jones, and his somewhat antagonistic grandmother, played by Weaver. Also, Conor is bullied at school, because, y’know, that’s exactly what he needs in his life right now. Also this is a movie based on the story penned by Patrick Ness, who was credited for the movie’s screenplay.
So, yes, this movie is heavy as it shows a young adult watching his mother grow sicker and sicker with hopes of a cure growing thin. It looks like a dark children’s movie, except it isn’t. The true tragedy is that this film never really finds a niche audience (although I’ll tell you who it is: fans of the Limbo videogame. THIS IS YO JAM!!!!) because young teenagers, the ones I see this movie getting to the most, are going to skip out on this one for….Underworld. And your socially conscious 20- and 30-somethings are eyeing Hidden Figures, so you’re left with the older crowd, whom this movie wasn’t marketed to, and also to children, who are not going to get/enjoy/appreciate this one.
Well, I’m here getting blue in the face, screaming at you to go see this one. The visuals and artistic style employed here are breathtaking. The three short stories that unfold, particularly the first one, are conveyed beautifully, and present us with messy endings and themes that don’t really gift us the Happily Ever Afters that we’re looking for. McDougall as Conor is quite amazing, with parts of his performance being signs of a young actor still coming into his own, and other parts that are spellbinding. He has the incredible task of shouldering the brunt of the movie, and he does it very well. Felicity Jones is not quite outstanding, but she was serviceable with excellent moments. I surprisingly liked Weaver, fake British accent and all, for the emotion she brought to the table, and Kebbell for bringing that spark as the welcome albeit brief relief from the dark times that lay all around Conor. Also the Monster is great, and visually he’s a beautiful monstrosity to behold.
The movie does start a little slower than I think it should have, and sometimes it’s easy to miss important dialogue because either other movie sounds drown it out or McDougall doesn’t have that full diaphragm behind his lines. But other than that, this is a movie where nitpicks are scarce. There’s a lot said by expressions and body language alone in this movie without words being needed in places, and emotion is appropriate, I personally felt, without disintegrating into utter sapville. This is a story that in many ways is extremely original with a very poignant climax and immersive descent, and the ending, while some may view it as cheesy, plays into what I feel is the open-ended style of Bayona and Guillermo del Toro, with also a nod to Tim Burton’s Big Fish.
This is a shockingly heady movie with rather earthy messages (get it? because it’s a TREE monster!!!), excellent, believable performances and a gripping story. This is the movie of the weekend, and by the numbers, it’s the one you’re missing…
…and you shouldn’t be.
A Monster Calls gets an 8.9.