'A Monster Calls' is a needlessly complicated, overtly grim fairy tale

‘A Monster Calls’ is a needlessly complicated, overtly grim fairy tale

Image: Focus Features

By Kyle G. King. Repackaged fairy tales are yet another tactic for the Hollywood studio system to release “new” movies at a minimal risk. J.A. Bayona’s latest film, A Monster Calls, based on a novel by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), is an audio and visual cinescape, one that’s unapologetic in its frankness towards childhood relation to fear and loss. It generates that classic fairy tale wonder only to undermine it with grim sentiments.

Newcomer Lewis MacDougall plays English schoolboy Conor O’Malley, whose slate-gray world only gets lonelier by the day: He copes with his mother’s losing battle with cancer, he’s bullied at school, he’s abandoned by his father in America, and he’s underappreciated by his grandmother at home. Conor has nobody to turn to and in his grief unknowingly calls for the help of an ancient monster, spawned from a giant yew tree at the top of a hill.

The talking tree only manages to frustrate and confuse Conor further by bossing him around and speaking in absurd riddles, none of which seem to offer any kind of useful counsel. As Conor crashes through the many stages of a well-guarded grief, A Monster Calls reveals itself — not as a fairy tale, but a children’s story about the fear of the unknown. Conor makes every attempt to navigate the lies provided to him by the adults in his life.

Image: Focus Features

With such grim subject matter, A Monster Calls demands a more mature sensibility than is generally given to most child-giant companion tales. The leviathan in question serves as a grotesque cipher to move the story along, but it’s also an analogy for a child’s reaction to a situation they don’t or can’t understand. The monster enables Conor to lash out, but it also directly challenges him to reflect, to face his harsh reality through the monster’s deliberately ambiguous lessons. Above all, Conor’s giant is a well crafted story device.

Though the film dares to be ambitious and unusual it over-complicates itself in fear that it’s saddled with too simple a premise. As more and more heartbreak is thrown onto the shoulders of young Conor the monster’s call to help Conor is kept intentionally muddled. Luckily it has a stellar cast: Felicity Jones, as Conor’s ill-stricken mother, provides the kind eyes and quivering voice of a loving mother desperate for more time. Sigourney Weaver slowly unravels as Conor’s stern grandmother with grace. Liam Neeson’s rich voice work, alongside Oriol Tarrago’s thundering sound design, bring humanity to a character realized solely through computer wizardry.

Such intimate performances are what keeps A Monster Calls from completely transforming into a cynical exercise in cinematic fantasy. When we’re left alone with Conor and his monster, the film contends that fairy tales encourage foolish expectations, that they lead us to believe comforting lies rather than difficult truths. Harsh words for dark times. That position may reap bitter waterworks for sure, but you’ll forget about its darker themes well before the tears dry on your cheeks.

Directed by J. A. Bayona.

Produced by Belén Atienza, Mitch Horwits, and Jonathan King.

Screenplay by Patrick Ness.

Based on A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall, and Liam Neeson.

Rated PG-13 because this kid is obsessed with death.

6 out of 10

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