A Monster Calls (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A typical but solid fairy tale of grief and anger

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“A Monster Calls” is a fairy tale which knows how to engage and enchant its audiences. While its story may be typical and predictable in terms of narrative and characterization, it impresses us with a number of nice fantasy elements and then touches us with a solid human base below them, and we come to care about its young hero’s difficult emotional struggle in the story.

For Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), life has been quite difficult inside and outside his home. His dear mother Elizabeth (Felicity Jones) has been suffering from her cancer, and she keeps saying to her son that things will be all right in the end, but it is apparent that she does not have much time left for her and Conor. That means he will soon have to live with his grandmother, but he does not her like at all due to her rather strict attitude, which is not mellowed much even when her daughter is later sent to a hospital for a more intensive treatment.

In his school, Conor has been tormented by several bullies just because he looks like someone to be bullied, and one of these bullies is particularly cruel to him. Whenever that boy looks back at him in their classroom, Conor knows that he will be cornered and beaten as usual, and it seems there is nothing he can do about that.

As his mind is boiling with anger and grief, he comes to experience a strange happening at one night. There is an old yew tree in a decrepit church cemetery not so far from his home, and it is suddenly transformed into a gigantic monster which looks like a cross between a robot in the Transformer movies and that wooden alien in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). As Conor looking at it with horror and fascination, the monster, which is voiced by Liam Neeson, soon comes to Conor, and it offers a sort of deal to him; it will tell three stories one by one during its visits to Conor, and Conor must tell his own truthful story in exchange for that later.

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The first story, which is presented via a broad but striking animation sequence, seems to be a simple tale of good and evil at first but turns out to be a little more complex than expected. As it goes through several narrative turns, the story indirectly teaches Conor that no one is wholly good or bad, and Conor accordingly comes to realize that his life is not as simple as he once thought. His grandmother may be too frigid in his view, but one brief scene implies that she has struggled with her own grief and torment just like him. His father, who divorced her mother some years ago and moved to LA since that, cannot always be near Conor, and his current job and family come first for him now, but that does not mean that he does not love his son.

While Conor has to stay in his grandmother’s house for a few days, the monster visits him again for giving him the second story, which is also presented via an animation sequence. While it is about retaining hope and faith in front of despair and sadness on the surface, it also reflects the deep anger and frustration growing inside Conor, and that eventually leads to a harrowing moment of devastation after Conor loses himself in anger along with the monster.

In case of the third story, it is far simpler than the other two stories, and I am not so sure about whether it delivers any particular good lesson. As Conor is tormented again by his school bullies, the monster comes to him, and it tells him about an invisible man who finally came to decide to do something about his miserable status which has been ignored by many others around him. Prompted by this last story, Conor surely demonstrates to not only his bullies and but also many other students that he will not be ignored at all, and that leads to a brief scene with the school principle played by Geraldine Chaplin (Yes, she is the daughter of that legendary silent movie star).

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While it looks like the monster and his three tales are more or less than the imaginative reflections of Conor’s inner struggle, the movie constantly keeps its story grounded in reality, and the screenplay by Patrick Ness, which is adapted from his book of the same name, establishes well the strong relationship between Conor and Elizabeth during its early part. During a sweet, intimate scene where they watch “King Kong” (1933) together, we can clearly feel the affection between them, and that is the main reason why later scenes between them are genuinely sad and poignant.

The main characters in the movie initially look simple, but they gradually come to us as real characters thanks to its good main cast members. Young actor Lewis MacDougall is heartbreaking at times in his unadorned performance, and he is also supported well by several reliable veteran performers. While Felicity Jones, who has been more notable since her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Theory of Everything” (2014), brings warmth and gentleness to her character, Sigourney Weaver is commendable especially when her character expresses her feelings to her grandson later in the story, and Liam Neeson, who indirectly appears in the film via one small detail, is perfectly cast as the authoritative voice of wisdom to our young hero.

“A Monster Calls” is directed by J.A. Bayona, who previously directed “The Orphanage” (2007) and “The Impossible” (2012). While these three movies are quite different from each other in many aspects, they are all competent pieces of work thanks to deft storytelling and skillful filmmaking. According to IMDB, Bayona is going to direct the fifth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, and I think we can have a little expectation considering the solid achievements in his three films.

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