Confronting the real world through imagination is at the heart of the new fantasy film A Monster Calls, the new visual feast from Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona (of the films The Orphanage, The Impossible previously). Bayona, along with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel), have taken the fairly mundane story of a child coming-of-age and given it a colorful makeover mixing excitement and real-world heartache. The story is about Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis MacDougall, also seen in Pan) who is only 12 years old but he’s already dealing with adult problems involving his family and his life at school.
Conor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is slowly battling cancer and his dad (Toby Kebbell) is on his way back to his second family after being out of the picture for most of his life. Add to that the bullying he receives at school plus his introverted nature and the results are far from pleasant. One night all of the anger and confusion Conor has been dealing with finally reaches the boiling point and instead of the adolescent outburst most movies would provide we get something different. In this case, the yew tree outside Conor’s bedroom comes to life and rests next to his window. It’s visually stunning and even has the booming voice of Liam Neeson so instead of running away Conor embraces the creature and begins a dialogue.
The tree’s agenda is rather straight-forward, in movie terms he’s here to guide Conor through his pain and eventually help him embrace and accept it. This kind of story has been told many times before, but Bayona’s visual execution is charming and very effective. For instance – in order to befriend Conor, the tree offers to visit him on three successive nights and tell him a different story. The point of these stories isn’t made immediately clear but while they’re being told they visually come to life using beautiful stop-motion animation. It’s a savvy trick to take us to a different layer of the film and it works wonders within the narrative. Even darker themes like Conor’s constant nightmares about his mother’s imminent death are conveyed in stunning artistic detail. The drawing notebook where the young boy retreats to escape the real world serves as the launching pad for some of the best and most beautiful sequences in the film.
Bayona has crafted a unique fairy tale with A Monster Calls, but much like Conor himself the film is at a curious impasse, too mature for younger kids and too on-the-nose for older jaded moviegoers. The middle-ground I suggest would be to go in for better or worse and make up your own mind. For every snicker I heard throughout my screening there were also a handful of grown men wiping away tears and applauding. The film obviously does have an impact and for me it was rapturous. Most of the experience is diving inside Conor’s head while joining his bittersweet journey and Bayona wisely keeps key facts at bay for most of the movie giving it more impact. Is the tree or “monster” of the title an actual living thing or just a figment of Conor’s imagination? How adept is he at accepting his own rapid development? These are the though-provoking questions these kinds of films rarely ask and they’re what ultimately make this one so special.
Marco’s TIFF Rating: B+
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