It’s been a strong couple of years for children’s films that have treated breaking our hearts as a requirement, whether it’s Pixar with Inside Out or Laika with Kubo And The Two Strings. JA Bayona’s live-action adaptation of Patrick Ness’ beloved novel A Monster Calls will provoke floods of tears from adults and children alike, but it also adheres firmly to the book’s mission statement: that fairytales are as vital as they are entertaining.
There will inevitably be quibbles about whether this is too dark, scary or slow for the younger viewers that it is aimed at, but the story is an important one, and it does not talk down to the its audience.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougal) lives with his single mother (Felicity Jones), who is undergoing treatment for cancer. Scared, frustrated, lonely and angry, Conor is pitied by his teachers and bullied by his peers. One night, at 12:07, the ground shakes and the yew tree in the church graveyard uproots itself. This monster (Liam Neeson) strides to the boy’s window and tells him that it will tell Conor three stories that will help. In return, Conor must tell the monster a fourth story: the nightmare that he has every night.
Having directed masterful Spanish ghost story The Orphanage and disaster movie The Impossible, Bayona, in a sense, brings it all together for this blend of classic fairytale and family drama. The two bleed into each other as the line between fantasy and reality is kept deliberately vague, with Conor’s rage and frustration feeding into his encounters with the monster, and back into his confrontations with his sneering classmates, his kindly but barely-there dad (Toby Kebbell) and his stern grandma (Sigourney Weaver).
It’s all almost unbearably heartbreaking, but there’s a consistent raw honesty that keeps it from becoming either bucket of treacle or piece of cynical emotional manipulation. You could point out that there’s not a lot of subtlety, but that would be overlooking the fact that the film is told from the point of view of Conor and his anger. His world is being taken away from him and no one is giving him a satisfactory response. His mum keeps telling him that she’s going to get better, his dad won’t rescue him from his grandma, and no matter what he does, no one is willing to punish him because, as they keep telling him, “What would possibly be the point in that?”
That “unsubtle” accusation also does a tremendous disservice to the cast. MacDougal is superb in the lead role and shows an incredible emotional range, and he’s backed up by very good work from Jones and Kebbell. Weaver’s starriness threatens to be a distracting presence early on, but that concern quickly vanishes and she is brilliant as the stone-faced but quietly distraught grandmother. It almost goes without saying that Neeson’s rumbling tones are a perfect fit for the monster, whose size and murky agenda make him an endearing mix of Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant and the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth (and a little bit of Groot).
There are one or two flaws to be made out through the tears. The beautifully rendered animated stories do sometimes seem a little slight when sitting alongside some of the film’s raw emotional sequences, the effects’ intrusions into the real world doesn’t always quite work, and there are moments when the film almost loses its footing, nearly (but never quite) falling into the obvious deadly traps of sentimentalism and emotional exploitation.
That Bayona almost completely manages to keep the film from feeling like it’s taking cheap shots at your tear ducts is truly impressive, and there is a real power to A Monster Calls. It acknowledges the importance of stories and fantasy, and it beautifully portrays the horrible, tangled mess of emotions that make up grief. Even though it’s roaring its message in your face, it’s a message that is undeniably important, incredibly moving and honestly delivered.
A Monster Calls is playing on 6, 7 and 11 October at the BFI London Film Festival and you can buy tickets here. It will be released in the UK on 1 January 2017. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.