A Monster Calls is not a subtle movie. There are movies that have an interesting subtext, that have a theme embedded into the story or that provide an allegory that allows us to understand or connect with a complex concept in a more palatable way. This is what great storytelling frequently does. And this is what A Monster Calls is about – a large talking tree literally explains the concept – but writer Patrick Ness, adapting from his own novel, and director J. A. Bayona have managed to make a film so completely desperate to get this idea across that the whole experience becomes utterly exhausting. Almost every scene seems to grind to halt in order for someone to explicitly spell out what the scene is about.
The protagonist who is tasked with learning an important – with a capital I – lesson here is Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy whose father is living in America with a new family and whose mother, played by the absolutely wasted Felicity Jones, is slowly dying of cancer. His mum is not a real person though, she is the kind of saintly cancer patient that is normally reserved for TV movie melodramas. She has very few characteristics – the little that we do see is all about what characteristics might relate to Conor though – she is simply a plot device in a film filled with visible pieces of heart-tugging machinery designed purely for this purpose.
A Monster Calls is a film made by people who seem desperate for the audience to cry, but you can see all these attempts so clearly and as a result there is a great distance from anything approaching real emotional investment. Almost every moment seems pitched towards making you cry, with an excessively syrupy score to try to help those tears get squeezed out of your eyes. Except your eyes may be rolling so hard that they’ll no doubt get in the way.
Conor is not dealing with his mother’s illness well and coupled with the daily beatings by a strangely obsessive bully – who utters bizarrely scripted phrases that no bully or indeed human has probably ever said as a child – he is beginning to fall apart and act out in increasingly violent ways. He’s also visited – at a specific time, for a reason that is crushingly obvious but only revealed late in the film – by a giant tree that tells him three stories to help him deal with his current crisis.
How do we know that this is the purpose of the stories? Because the giant tree – voiced with real gravitas and emotion by Liam Neeson – keeps pointing it out. In fact, when he first arrives he mentions it multiple times, just in case you might have missed it. And the stories are, of course, allegories for Conor’s current situation and designed to help him get through it. Obvious from the beginning, but again, quite clearly spelt out in the dialogue. Ness and Bayona never once treat the audience with any respect, assuming at every turn that every single thing must be clearly laid out so we don’t miss anything. The effect though, is like being told a joke that’s not particularly funny, but as you begin to smile, the teller ruins even that by explaining it to you like you’re an idiot.
One high point is the stories that the tree tells Conor, not for the content, but for the way in which Bayona and a highly talented team of animators visualises them. There is a blending of the physical world into these animated world of fantasy stories that is beautifully achieved, and the sequences themselves are stunningly animated and look incredibly original.
Bayona’s approach to the visuals and the audio – the sound mix is remarkable at times, particularly in the way in which minor diegetic sounds are manipulated and move around the cinema – is often quite striking, but so insistently thrust in your face is the purpose behind every choice that we are never left to calmly engage with what we are seeing and hearing.
A lot of the choices throughout the film also come across as incredibly mannered and artificial. The costuming and set deign, for instance, is all autumnal tones with a heavy seventies aesthetic, despite the clearly modern day setting, and it all seems carefully calculated to create a rosy, nostalgic feeling for a time that has slipped away. But none of it rings true, you’re just left wondering where Conor’s computer is or why no-one seems to own a mobile phone. This artificiality is all the more apparent as the film switches between the fantasy world that Conor slips into and the real one in which his mother is dying. Except it never actually feels in the least bit real.
A cloying, infuriating film, A Monster Calls is occasionally stunning to look at, but so transparently calculated at every turn that it’s almost impossible to take any of it seriously or invest in any of the film’s very highly strung emotions.