A Monster Calls

 

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A twelve-year-old boy struggles with the reality of bullying and his mother’s cancer when his worst nightmare comes to his rescue.

 

Monster Calls, A
   

Whichever way you look at it, A Monster Calls is an extraordinary film. How’s the story begin? It begins like so many stories: with a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man – and with a horrific dream. So intones the voice of Liam Neeson, the narrator, the beating heart of the film and Conor’s own worst nightmare. Conor is a twelve-year-old boy and a misfit, brought up by a single mum (Felicity Jones). He’s brutally bullied at school, so it’s no wonder he’s prone to nightmares.

 

But J.A. Bayona's film – scripted by Patrick Ness, from his own novel – spreads its net wide, embracing all kinds of monsters, from dragons to Moby Dick and King Kong to cancer. There are princes, stepmothers and anthropomorphic trees as well as the chilly realities of divorce and bereavement. Not even Roald Dahl went this far.

 

Tonally, the film recalls Pan’s Labyrinth with its mix of the surreal and the horrors of the present, but resides deeper within the recesses of a dream world. This would have worked even better had Conor’s real life been more credible.

 

There are some misjudgements. The overly familiar and towering form of Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother grates with the story’s realism, as does the recognisable tones of Liam Neeson as the monstrous yew tree of the title. So when the tree says, “Who am I? I am the spine that the mountains hang upon. I am the tears that the rivers cry. I am the lungs that breathe the wind,” you expect it to culminate with, “and I will find you. And I will kill you.”

 

The film’s ace card is the performance of young Lewis MacDougall, whose interior intensity devours the heart, and there’s a terrifically atmospheric score from Fernando Velázquez. But overall this is a visual experience, with the three animated tales told by the tree proving to be particularly striking (and a million light years from Disney).

 

Indeed, the film exerts a considerable power and if one is willing to be swept along by it, it should be an overwhelming and even cathartic experience – like a picture book that springs to life, only to reveal that it is the story of your own existence.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Toby Kebbell, James Melville, Geraldine Chaplin, and the voice of Liam Neeson.

 

Dir J.A. Bayona, Pro Belén Atienza, Mitch Horwits and Jonathan King, Screenplay Patrick Ness, Ph Óscar Faura, Pro Des Eugenio Caballero, Ed Bernat Vilaplana and Jaume Martí, Music Fernando Velázquez, Costumes Steven Noble.

 

Apaches Entertainment/Telecinco Cinema/Peliculas La Trini/Participant Media/River Road Entertainment-Entertainment One. 

108 mins. UK/Spain/USA/Canada. Rel: 1 January 2017. Cert. 12A.