After a summer movie season widely regarded as one of the worst in many years, many film lovers are understandably pessimistic about the future of the “popcorn flick”. The mainstream summer slate was almost universally criticized as vapid, noisy and simply lacking in “fun”, it reignited fears about the death of cinema. But of course, sometimes you just have to look harder to find gems in a constantly expanding international marketplace. And one such example is “A Monster Calls”, directed by Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona, which feels like an antidote to the curse that afflicted this year’s blockbusters.
Told from the perspective of a young boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), “A Monster Calls” recounts the most difficult period in his young life. An only child of a single mother (played by Felicity Jones), he is faced with the tragic circumstances of his beloved mom’s ailing health. Afflicted with terminal cancer, she tries to give him comfort. But like her own mother, Conor struggles to cope, suffering from nightmares and further aggravated by insensitive bullies at school. One night, his dreams are invaded by a strangely familiar tree-shaped monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who brings valuable lessons through a series of moralistic tales. Conor goes along with his new friend, not knowing whether he’s real or something he imagined. But it doesn’t matter, as together their relationship will pull him through his pain.
Back in 2009, Pixar’s “Up” struck a chord with children and adults alike, largely due to power of its now-classic aging montage. For some families it prompted some important parent-children discussions about the harsh realities of death, despite being ostensibly being a kids’ movie. With “A Monster Calls”, Bayona could potentially add to that conversation, offering up a poignant story about preparing for unimaginable loss.
Ably carried by newcomer Lewis MacDougall, this family oriented film sweeps us up in an escapist fantasy ride. Employing awe-inspiring visual effects and vivid animation sequences, it certainly sparks your imagination. And most memorable of all is the emposing monster, whose every entrance brings along cathartic destruction that Zach Snyder would be proud of. As mentioned earlier, “A Monster Calls” works nicely as an answer to blockbuster crisis, and it certainly delivers on the big budget spectacle.
But where Bayona really bucks the trend is in the film’s heartfelt emotions and underlying message. Anyone who has suffered through the loss of a cherished loved one can surely relate to Conor’s anger, sadness and depression. Using the monster as a metaphor for the courage and strength within us all, the film however leaves us with a bittersweet feeling.
“A Monster Calls” undoubtedly wears its heart on its sleeve. In fact, it almost feels too tender-hearted and well-intentioned to criticize. Indeed, it begs you to forgive any flaws – for example, we don’t see Jones’ character quite enough to feel the full blow of her loss – for the sake of its important message. Under all its flashy visuals, it reminds us that life isn’t a fairytale. And that’s perfectly OK.
“A Monster Calls” opens in select theaters December 23, 2016.