A Monster Calls Review

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A YOUNG boy involved in a gruelling family matter finds potential for closure with help from a talking tree in J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a hybridity of social realism and fantasy that means well but underwhelms due to a lack of whole engagement and conventional pace.
Yorkshire boy Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is not having a good time in his life. His mother (Felicity Jones) of whom he is extremely fond of is struggling to respond to cancer treatment, his unlikeable grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to live with her, his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in LA and he is the target of school bullies.
One night, at the pivotal time of 12.07 to be precise, a tree lying near his house suddenly comes to life, under the guise of the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). Here it offers to tell three stories based on fantasy tales that will be succeeded by a fourth which a resilient Conor will have to document.
With various events in his life and his father back to visit him, Conor attempts to transform the negatives in his life into positives with inspiration from the Monster. But as time goes by, his ardent belief that everything will be alright is conflicted by the cruelties that reality can sometimes bring.
Here Bayona tries to grip the audience by letting us know early on the problems that young Conor is facing, such as the bullying and establishing the scenario of how such a close bond between mother and son is threatened by her illness. At the same time though, he presents his piece in a style that feels conventional and inevitable, to the point that all we can do is try and make do with what is put onscreen. That is where the film finds its flaws and thereby lets itself down in general.
All too often, the film leads us to avenues we expect anyway and there are times when the film tries to pull the heartstrings too much to the point were the emotion is felt but not heavily respected. The storyline regarding Conor’s mother is handled carefully but there is a sense that the film is relying too much on sentimentality, which stops it stretching beyond its capabilities.
Depicting the relationship between Conor and his grandmother also comes across as a bit too obvious, never feeling dull but not presenting itself throughout as a means of entertainment.
The storyline does pick up slightly at one point where during what appears to be a hallucination during an encounter with the Monster, Conor destroys the entire living room. Seeing the destruction caused allows some form of audience engagement as one fears instantly what will happen when that is discovered and almost straightaway, we hear the keys to the door going. This provides us with a sense of panic for the audience as we know how fractious things are anyway, so one can only imagine the reaction of the affected, on top of all that is happening.
It does feel though that given that is probably the highlight of the film, that tells how the film’s result is one of dislike. It is not a scene that appears original or truly memorable and that explains where the film goes wrong at times.
The usage of fantasy sequences leave a mixed response. The animation is beautiful in the first two stories but fail to ignite a complete fascination. The third story focuses on the refusal to be put down by others via visibility as Conor eventually stands up to the key bully of his school, where finally the usage of fantasy stories appears to gain some ground in linking itself to the story in a solid manner.
It is an interesting concept how Bayona chooses to set the film in Yorkshire, where the film involves a scene CGI-laden tree guiding a boy inside the cafeteria of a comprehensive. The hybridity of CGI-laden storylines with social realism in an area not often known for being given the Hollywood treatment is one of the more respectable areas the film details. One would expect Clio Barnard nowadays to make a film set here so having Bayona, a so-so director known for Spanish horror The Orphanage and tsunami tale The Impossible, deliver this appears to confirm his diversity.
The result though is one that does not seem to do much wrong but fails to bring enough life to it. Whether its Jones’s character trying to keep a brave face or a somewhat awkward father-son reunion, there is a feel that only just stands above straightforward, not pulling the viewer into the action thanks to a script that sounds once too often in the same vicinity.
Moments appear once in a while where one is entertained but that tends to be all too brief, before being led to areas where one does not feel the same prior to that. Even with a very good child performance from MacDougall and Neeson’s effectiveness in his voiceover role, there feels like there is something not quite hitting the heights to really entertain.
Visually impressive and often well-acted are two positives of A Monster Calls but the lack of anything truly remarkable stops the film from building on its potential.
***