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A Monster Calls online movie review - A beautiful modern tale suffering from focus issues
The trailer for this movie was perfect, a real tearjerker focusing on exactly what the synopsis says: a little boy coming to terms with his mother's terminal illness with the help of his imagination.
As someone who just lost his mother to cancer I was sobbing while watching the trailer and put this movie on my "must-see" -list. Unfortunately, the movie left me a bit cold.
First the good parts. The relationship between the boy (Connor) and the monster works very well and the animations that go along with the monster's stories are absolutely gorgeous. I'm usually quite sceptical about combining different visual elements because it rarely works but here the tone and amount is just perfect. Another aspect of the film that works is the chemistry between the dying mother and her son. Oddly enough, this is the movie's biggest flaw since the mother has such a small part in the storyline.
The first half of the movie strikes as unfocused, as if the director didn't know what he wanted to say. Quite often movies based on novels suffer from lack of focus because the director was unable to cut away portions from the source material. That is also the case with A Monster Calls. The heart of the story, the mother, is pushed aside in the very first minutes and we are introduced to a number of characters that add nothing to the story. More screen time is given to school bullies than to the mother which seems very odd. Apparently the director couldn't help himself and just had to dwell in bullying. A pattern which seems to be a norm in children's movies. Then we are introduced to the father, a character completely irrelevant to the story. His only purpose is to show that Connor comes from a broken family. I haven't read the novel the film is based on, so I can not say what his purpose was supposed to be. Perhaps his role was to showcase how important the mother was for the boy, since she's the only parent he's got. None of that comes through in the film, though. The father walks in and out, amounting to nothing.
Then there's the grandmother who is introduced as an uptight caricature with too many minutes wasted on stressing her strictness. This is a real shame since the character also provides the most heartfelt moments in scenes establishing the shared grief she and Connor both feel. Something really amazing could've been accomplished with this pairing without the needless "evil grandmother" tropes. A real missed opportunity, I feel.
Once the film has established just how hard a life Connor has, the focus goes back to where it should have always been: the mother and Connor's acceptance of her state of health. This is clearly the strong point of the story and the ending is executed beautifully. The emotional impact of the last half an hour or so also reminds the viewers of how impactful the entire film could've been had the father been reduced to a side mention and the minutes dedicated for school bullies cut in half in order to raise the profile of the mother. By doing so, A Monster Calls could've accomplished something groundbreaking by talking about cancer to children, many of whom will unfortunately be affected by it. This message, however, gets lost with the director juggling with too many elements.