A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016)
In his introduction to the 2011 book on which this movie is based, author Patrick Ness (The Chaos Walking series) pays tribute to the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007), who came up with the original idea for the novel but died before being able to do anything with that idea. So Ness, a fan of Dowd’s work, as well as a friend, took on the challenge, and the result was a deeply moving and heartfelt story about a boy’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s cancer. The film adaptation, from J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), while not quite as magical as the book – something about the visual concretization of the monster takes away from his appeal – mostly does justice to its message that the only way forward through pain and loss is to accept that they are part of life.
Conor (Lewis McDougall, quite fine here, though his only previous screen credit was in the dreadful Pan) lives with his divorced mom (Felicity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, good as always), his father having decamped to America a few years prior. He’s a lonely boy, invisible to his school peers, except for a trio of nasty bullies. Shy and withdrawn, he is “other.” Mostly, though, he is sad, troubled by a recurring nightmare of desolation, out of which he emerges every night in a cold sweat, his screams echoing in his ears. One night, as he awakes, there appears a monster (beautifully voiced by Liam Neeson, Silence), formed from the yew tree in the distance. That monster has come for Conor, but not to kill him; rather, he says it just wants to tell three stories. And so it goes. Out of their subsequent conversations over many nights springs a mystery that informs the affecting tapestry of this sorrowful, yet life-affirming, tale.
There’s more to the movie than that, however, especially once the mother’s condition worsens. Conor goes to live with his stiff and formal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, Chappie, a strong presence, even though she would be wise to avoid any attempts at an English accent), deals with a visit from his visiting father (Toby Kebbel, Ben-Hur, adequate) and fights back against those bullies. Compared to these real-life problems, what’s a monster? Indeed, that’s exactly the point: nothing is as frightening as the world at large, if we let it terrorize us, so best learn to struggle and triumph over one’s demons. Each story the monster tells Conor has this truth women into its narrative, so that, by the end, Conor is prepared for the worst.
Speaking of the stories, the animation in their sequences – hinted at in the lovely opening credits – is gorgeous. Even though I preferred conjuring the images in my own imagination when I read the book, if one must see someone else’s vision, then this is the way to go. Rendered as living watercolors, they drip, shimmer and splash across the screen in vivid color, a treat for the eyes. Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, adds a coda to his story – involving the origin of these watercolors – that I did not like, since it explains too much, but that doesn’t take away from the raw power of what the drawings represent. Despite its occasional flaws, then, the movie is still a worthy tribute to its source material, and a welcome addition to the canon of films that teach children how to grow up with dignity.