J.A. Bayona (El Orfanato, The Impossible) returns with his most technically ambitious and emotionally raw outing in A Monster Calls. A parable on dealing with grief, the film is anchored by a star turn from Lewis MacDougall with fine support from Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell and Liam Neeson. Fusing dazzling motion capture, water based paint animation along with some hefty drama, the film certainly packs an emotional punch.
Children dealing with the impending death of a loved one is a tough topic to tackle and that’s what A Monster Calls puts front and centre. Based on the novel and adapted for the screen by Patrick Ness, whom wrote the story based on a concept by late author Siobhan Dowd, the tale fuses fantasy elements into the narrative. It’s thematics that Bayona has dabbled with before in El Orfanato (The Orphanage) and the earlier works of Guillermo Del Toro such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone deal in the same way – young children coping with horrific circumstances.
Young Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) has a pretty raw deal. He lives with his terminally ill mother (Jones) in a ramshackle townhouse that overlooks the local cemetery and a grand old tree. He’s an outcast at school, is frequently bullied and beaten up by his classmates, and has a stiff-as-porcelain grandmother (Weaver) whose attempts to maintain an authoritarian approach to the heartache unfolding around them that only distances Conor further. On top of all of this, he is plagued by a recurring nightmare.
And so it happens one dark and stormy night at 12:07am Conor is jolted from his nightmare to look across the cemetery and see the grand old tree uproot and reveal itself as a monster (Neeson doing motion capture). The monster comes with tidings for the boy which must be reciprocated with a truth and thus the journey of A Monster Calls begins…
Technically, A Monster Calls is an astonishing achievement. The motion capture work for the creature itself is nothing short of flawless and, to go alongside it, the sequences of water based paint animation are truly stunning. Likening it to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One animation sequence with a bit more flourish, Bayona weaves these elements expertly into the narrative. The same is done with the digital vfx work, whilst they are a major element to the story, they never feel overbearing or in play to make up for lost drama.
And drama is something that A Monster Calls is in good supply of. This is heartbreaking stuff and the film is at its strongest not when Conor is interacting with the Monster, but when it is rooted in the real life drama unfolding around him. MacDougall imbues Conor with the right amount of anger, isolation, grief, rebellion and cockiness that you genuinely feel this journey he is on. And that’s the key here, for all it’s big name supporting cast and dazzling visual effects, this rests on MacDougall’s shoulders to carry it and he knocks it out of the park.
There are a few moments where the film runs the risk of becoming overwrought but Bayona manages to teeter just close enough to the edge and not spill over. In doing so, dear reader, he reduced this author to tears on more than one occasion.
A Monster Calls is an emotionally engaging, technically dazzling drama that reminds you of the magic that cinema can provide. It’s heavy going yet lifted thanks to the assured hand of J.A. Bayona and an absolute star turn from Lewis MacDougall.
A MONSTER CALLS releases TBA 2017 in AUSTRALIA through ENTERTAINMENT ONE AUSTRALIA