A Monster Calls Is Gothic Goodness for Kids

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a 12-year-old with a lot on his mind. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives far away, and is busy with a new family. There’s no room for Conor to even come and visit. Bullies at school tease him and beat him up because he wants to be an artist. One of the boys even destroys Conor’s sketchpad. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is not exactly the cookie-baking type. She’s brusque and businesslike. On top of all that, Conor’s mom (Felicity Jones) is dying of a terminal illness. She’s hidden it for as long as she could, but now the end is near. The boy feels beyond helpless. Complicating matters is the arrival of a massive monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who goads Conor into facing his very worst fears.

A Monster Calls

2016, PG-13

The director of A Monster Calls is J.A. Bayona, who made an incredibly visual dark fantasy debut several years ago with a melancholy ghost movie called The Orphanage. Bayona’s next offering was The Impossible in 2012, delving into the true story of a family caught in a catastrophic tsunami. He really knows how to tap into the mind and emotions of the child in all of us – all three films are about mothers and sons, about loss and grieving, coping with tragedy, and how the strength of family bonds will help heal even the most painful wounds. The film is based on a children’s book by Patrick Ness (author of the Chaos Walking YA series), who also wrote the screenplay.

A Monster Calls is sad in places, but not depressing. Kids will love the breathtaking visual world that so effectively creates a nightmare landscape juxtaposed with the everyday as Conor navigates the pitfalls and rewards of his rapidly changing life. The 40-foot tall Monster is a bit of wildcard – is he there to help Conor, or not? “People don’t like what they don’t understand,” he tells Conor when the boy expresses confusion and frustration over the morals of the stories.

Neeson’s voice is absolutely perfect to portray the wild yet wise and persistent creature who takes on the form of an ancient tree. Motion-capture was also used, to imbue the Monster with the actor’s actual mannerisms and expressions. The Monster isn’t cute – he’s a powerful, towering combination of spindly roots, strong branches, shuddering leaves, topped with glowering red eyes. What’s more, it’s a yew tree, which lends layers to the possibility the Monster is perhaps another side of Conor himself (you/tree).

True to its gothic fairytale roots, the movie unfolds as a quest: Conor must listen to three tales from the Monster, then top those with a fourth story of his own – if he doesn’t deliver, there will be consequences. When the Monster returns each night precisely at 12:07 a.m., he begins each fable along familiar storybook lines — widowed king marries evil witch; prince loses his fiancée; a wronged apothecaries seeks vengeance — then wraps them up with unexpectedly unhappy endings. “Many things that are true feel like a cheat,” the Monster says in regard to Conor’s protest.

The animated moments are an interesting blend of painterly watercolors in the classic sense, and cutting edge CGI that transforms the eerie church graveyard that Conor drew in a sketchpad into a very realistic, almost apocalyptic world where there’s actual danger.

The animated story-within-a-story sequences are striking, but the best parts happen in the real world as Conor takes on so many burdens and responsibilities, sometimes acting out in destructive and counterproductive ways. MacDougall’s acting is superb, as he is often unlikable as the somber and seemingly joyless Conor, but ultimately sympathetic and wholly believable. He carries the movie squarely on his narrow shoulders; he’s in nearly every scene portraying his character’s anger, exasperation, indignation, and finally, resignation and acceptance, without ever becoming mawkish and avoiding overstatement.

The supporting cast is excellent, as well. James Melville plays Harry, a school tyrant who frequently targets Conor. He’s more than just a cardboard cutout. Kebbel as the father who lives in America, makes you feel his frustration that he can’t do more – or won’t, as the case may be. Conor is forced to stay with his grandmother while his mom is in the hospital. Donning a British accent, Weaver exudes quiet grace under pressure. It’s no surprise that Jones – who’s in a lot of movies this year, not the least of which is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – is the glue that really holds this dysfunctional family together with her fragile resolve to make this right for her son before she leaves him. The actress nails it in some emotionally-fraught scenes.

A Monster Calls is the third 2016 film to feature a child’s relationship with metaphorical fantasy creatures, and, along with The BFG and Pete’s Dragon, it does a good job of blending interplay between dramatic life experiences and dreamy imagination. It’s the best of the lot, because it plays equally well to an adult audience. It is an important movie for kids to see because it will really get them thinking, and will help open lines of discussion for you to talk about many issues – not only the loss of life, but how to deal with divorce, bullies, and nocturnal monsters in a healthy and ultimately hopeful way.

What films are you looking forward to seeing with the kids this year? Share with us!

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