A Monster Calls online movie review - MacDougall is Phenomenal in this Beautifully Heartbreaking Movie
A Monster Calls follows the story of Connor, a child too old to be a kid, but too young to be a man, as he goes through probably the hardest time a child his age could go through.
His mother is slowly dying of a terminal illness, and his father lives with his new family in America, leaving Connor to look after her. When his mother gets particularly bad, Connor has to stay with his strict, house-proud grandmother. To make matters worse, he endures particularly horrendous bullying at school, is haunted by a nightmare, and everyone treats him differently. He is overcome with anger and grief. That is until the tree in the cemetery behind his house comes to life and starts telling him paradoxical stories. Through these stories, Connor starts to unpack the hard truths of life and is better able to deal with what's going on around him.
When it comes to what the movie wants to say, and the lessons that can be gleamed from it, there are many. Each of the stories that the monster offers Connor have their own parabolic messages, and they all act as smaller parts of a larger truth that Connor himself must accept. Fundamentally, A Monster Calls is about grief, it's about dealing with loss and the emotional baggage that comes with, be it anger, sorrow, or guilt.
Much like Labyrinth I reviewed a few days ago, there's a few deeper meanings and subtle uses of metaphor and symbolism that helps to elevate the movie, particularly to keener eyes. The most obvious is the prevalence of clocks. There's a clock in almost every scene, showing the passage of time and how it's inescapable, but also the time on those clocks can often hold meaning themselves, most notably the time the monster appears, which proves to be a pivotal time in Connor's life later on.
A Monster Calls would not have worked nearly as well without Lewis MacDougall as Connor. A relative newcomer (having only starred in Pan previously, which no-one watched), he shows a talent and maturity that often outshines the more experienced actors surrounding him. His ability to show the conflict bubble underneath the surface, and let it explode out and retreat back in all in a single scene is breathtaking. From his outbursts of anger to his teary-eyed great and sorrow is palpable. Felicity Jones doesn't get a whole lot to do other than look horrifically ill, but the scenes she shares with MacDougall early on are enough to warm your cockles. Sigourney Weaver isn't entirely convincing as an elder British lady, but stills manages to put on one of the best performances I've ever seen from her. One scene in particular, completely without dialogue, shows the strength she can inhabit as an actress, whistling through shock, anger, and devastation all in a single heartbeat. It's a scene that will forever remain with me purely thanks to her. Finally Toby Kebbell appears every now and then as Connor's father, and I'm still in disbelief that he hasn't properly hit the big time yet.
Of course half of what attracted me to A Monster Calls in the first place was the visuals, and it doesn't disappoint. Most notable is the creation of the monster himself, recreated with such life- like detail through motion capture thanks to the combined efforts of Liam Neeson and Tom Holland. His presence is both frightening and comforting at the same time. He's a true behemoth, and his introduction is terrifying, an aspect that is never truly lost even at his most benevolent. The detail on him, from the scratchy bark to the creaking branches is astounding and immersive.
Furthermore, he's not the only visual aspect that deserves praise, as two of his stories are told, somewhat in the vein of Hermione's telling of the Deathly Hallows, almost entirely in small animated interludes that are truly beautiful to behold. The first is all inks and watercolours, creating a somewhat typical fantasy world of charming princes and evil stepmother queens, but with a dark twist. The offset between darkness and colour aids the storytelling perfectly. The second is made with degrees of stop-motion (emulated or not, I can't tell) silhouettes of an industrial era conflict between a priest and a pagan apothecary, and again, it's simply beautiful to watch, with the animation aiding in the telling of the story itself, setting moods and emotions and visually portraying the story's setting.
What a way to start my year. A Monster Calls is a near faultless movie, with beautiful animation, impressive performances, and a surprisingly profound story that'll tug on your heartstrings as much as it'll have you thinking and dissecting the subtle symbolism throughout (although it does wear most of what it wants to say on it's sleeve). If I had one criticism, it's that it's unrelenting in it's treatment of sorrow and grief. This is an emotionally dark movie, and it does little to lighten the mood. By the time we reach the inevitable and unsurprising conclusion, I felt emotionally drained and crushed and just wanted it to end (which in retrospect is actually the most fitting achievement of this movie). I give A Monster Calls a solid 9/10, and would absolutely recommend it. It's probably too much for those going through loss, and too frightening for younger viewers, but everyone else just needs to make sure they bring plenty of tissues.