The Good: Great effects, Decent performances
The Bad: Simple plot, Off-putting mood
The Basics: A Monster Calls is very much an art house fantasy, which might have felt more fresh and original had similar works not been produced first.
What largely seems to separate art house films from major theatrical releases is the prioritization on mood. Art films tend to focus on creating a mood, while the best major theatrical releases focus on telling a story (though most focus on big, bright special effects, at least for the most banal blockbuster releases). Both try to create memorable characters and use them for the story they are attempting to tell, but when the characters fall out of balance, art house films (as a general rule) prioritize mood, mainstream theater released prioritize story (often storytelling twists). A Monster Calls is definitely an art house film; the film is preoccupied with mood, slow and cerebral.
And often off-putting.
A Monster Calls is good, but the longer the film went on, the more I felt like I probably would have enjoyed it more had I not seen Tideland (reviewed here!) and Pan's Labyrinth (reviewed here!) before seeing this child-centered fantasy film. A Monster Calls is all right, but it is not truly extraordinary, as it is preoccupied with imagery and mood over making its protagonist, Connor, more fleshed out. A Monster Calls is based upon a novel by the same name. It is worth noting that I have not read the novel upon which A Monster Calls is based, so this is a review purely of the film.
Connor O'Malley has a recurring nightmare of a nearby church getting swallowed into the ground; a nightmare where he tries to save his mother from being sucked into the abyss, but fails. The twelve year-old boy spends his days being bullied at school by Harry and his two friends and he returns home to his mother, who is losing a battle with cancer. Connor wakes every night at 12:06 from his nightmare, but one night, at 12:07, a giant tree monster visits him. Much to his chagrin, the monster threatens Connor with telling him three stories and after the third story, Connor must tell the monster his own truth.
As Connor reacts to his dying mother, his grandmother who comes to help with her ailing daughter, his school bully and a visit from his otherwise absent American father, Connor is visited again and again by the monster. The monster tells Connor stories, which help him to cope with his grandmother's presence, his internal rage, and the feelings he has of being invisible when he is not punished for lashing out at his bully and trashing his grandmother's living room. Connor is given hope when his mother is given treatment from a yew tree, after learning that his monster is made from yew trees, but his mother's condition progresses and he falls into despair.
A Monster Calls is a pretty straightforward allegory story; Connor is pushed by his dreams to understand how to emotionally deal with his real life. The story the monster tells about the Evil Queen who is not truly an evil queen quickly becomes obvious in the face of how hard Connor's grandmother is trying to deal with both Connor and her dying daughter. By the time the third story comes up, the connection between the monster's stories and Connor's psychological issues are pretty transparent.
Connor might not be the most interesting character - his struggle is very real and he is fleshed out occasionally with bursts of artistic ability, but he is largely defined in A Monster Calls by his reactions to his mother's illness and his school bully - but he is very well-portrayed by Lewis MacDougall. MacDougall is given top-billing, above Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones, and he earns his status despite this being the first motion picture he has headlined. MacDougall plays off the virtual elements of the monster quite well, getting eyelines right and emoting strongly opposite (what for him was originally) nothing. MacDougall manages to play strong emotions well, without treading into juvenile melodrama, which is quite a feat.
Weaver and Jones, predictably, make the most out of their supporting roles. Jones plays a dying woman well and Sigourney Weaver has the whole conflicted affect down pat to make the grandmother seem like a woman struggling to adapt to her life's sudden changes.
Ultimately, A Monster Calls is good, but it is simple, like a fairy tale. This is a decent fairy tale and allegory for young people struggling with change and death, but it is surprisingly direct, despite the layers of imagery. While it is useful and well-assembled, A Monster Calls is predictable in many ways and the mood makes it initially inaccessible and uncomfortable. The result is a movie that I watched and could admire the merits of, but lacked a spark that made me enthusiastic to recommend it . . . or talk much about it.
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Great Wall
War On Everyone
Underworld: Blood Wars
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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