One of the better movies of 2016 that is in danger of being forgotten amongst the sound and fury of superhero and Star Wars movies.
This is the story of Conor, a young boy who has a lot on his plate. He’s living with his terminally ill mother and his father is nowhere around. He’s taking care of the house, forced to grow up quickly, and having nightmares about losing his mom. He’s much too young for all this responsibility and a lot of anger and grief is seething inside him. One day he has a dream or a hallucination about a giant tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, visiting his house and insisting that he tells Conor stories about kings and queens and whatnot. Connor has little patience for all that childish nonsense, but relents.
The monster’s stories are beautifully stylized animated sequences that look like moving watercolor paintings. It’s wonderful to look at, and good thing too, otherwise this story within a story concept would be a bit tedious. It’s wouldn’t be a good thing to interrupt the real story for some unrelated yada yada fairytale stuff. But of course the stories have a direct relevance for Conor’s situation. This is a story about grief and emotional release.
A Monster Calls is a shockingly dark story for its fairy tale theme. Do you remember Bridge to Terabithia (2007) that looked like some childish fairy tale stuff and how it unexpectedly made everyone cry? Or Where the Wild Things Are (2009), where giant beasts help a boy come to terms with his feelings? A Monster Calls fits right in that list, but may be the bleakest of them. The scenes in the real world are dark and dreary, full of clouded skies and bullying and tears.
It’s a beautifully portrayed story. Lewis MacDougall shows himself to be a very talented child actor. Neeson does what he does best, just lending his voice and speaking with a soothing baritone. The music by Fernando Velazquez (amazing music!) and lighting and camerawork is all of a high level. It’s very involving, heartfelt story. Anyone who has had to deal with loss and emotions that are difficult to face will find something in this film.
I wonder whom stories like these are meant for. They are not for escapism or for thrilling children. This is looking at fairy tales from the perspective of a therapist. In the end it is a portrait of a troubled young boy in a difficult situation, and I expect that adults will get the most out of it. The fairy tale element of the monster is part of the childhood that Conor is not being allowed to have. It is the giant obstacle in his life that is being manifested through the imagination of a boy. It makes sense this way for fantasy to intrude upon the story. It makes it more tragic too.