Director: J. A. Bayona
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson
Run Time: 108 mins
‘A Monster Calls’ is an adaptation of the much-loved novel by Patrick Ness which tells the story of thirteen-year old Conor O’Malley and his struggle to cope with his mother’s terminal cancer. At the same time, he is visited by a fantastical “monster” who tells him three stories which have many obvious parallels with Conor’s life that allows him to come to terms with this situation. This film is directed by J.A. Bayona who made ‘The Orphanage’ and ‘The Impossible’ and is going to tackle the sequel to ‘Jurassic World’ so a lot is riding on this film to perform. I’ve got mixed views on Bayona – his films are generally a visual treat but I do find them to be quite emotionally manipulative and uneven. Prior to watching this film, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it as it has got to have one of the most annoying trailers of recent memory which seems to indicate that Bayona’s flaws were ever-present in this film.
I found ‘A Monster Calls’ to be an ambitious feature and it showcases both the best and worst in Bayona – it’s a lot better than the god-awful trailer! The film is supported by a strong cast with Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver being particular highlights. The animated sequences are absolutely stunning, unmistakably channelling the aesthetics of Guillermo Del Toro at times and Bayona does try to tackle some heady themes which ultimately exceed his grasp. However Bayona does succumb to his usual flaws as the film is disjointed, narratively jumbled, emotionally manipulative and has numerous tonal shifts.
The cast that Bayona has assembled here are mostly great with Liam Neeson as the titular monster being the standout as well as surprisingly Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother who tries her hand at an English accent. Although perhaps the accent is a little wobbly at times, you’ve got to admire her effort and she is well-developed as a character. Neeson’s ‘monster’ is also well-developed and he is both menacing and sympathetic at times and has a lot of range. Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbell as Conor’s parents are just ok, Jones who seems to be in everything at the moment overacts as the terminally ill mother and Kebbell’s character isn’t a particularly likeable one. This is also true of newcomer Lewis MacDougall as Conor, who does his best with the material but his character is very hard to empathise with as he’s just so irrational, abrupt and poorly behaved.
The story is a mixed bag – although I haven’t read the novel from which this was adapted from, I was constantly emotionally invested as the film progressed though and I did think the themes Bayona tried to tackle were ambitious particularly the act of growing up and the theme of death. However as mentioned, the character’s motives are hard to connect with and Bayona constantly tries to get tears from the audience with many scenes that are downright guiltily manipulative – the film doesn’t earn this right but Bayona seems to think it does. The juxtaposition of locations between rural and urban England and the fantastical animation sequences are quite jarring which makes the film rather disjointed and uneven and the tonal shifts between these sequences don’t tie together. As mentioned, the animation scenes with Neeson’s narration are the strongest point of this film – they are extremely thoughtfully crafted and are very reminiscent of the visual aesthetics of Guillermo Del Toro and the life messages the stories try to teach are strong and endlessly metaphorical.
Bayona’s regular composer, Fernando Velazquez’s score fits the film well but isn’t particularly memorable but it is Oscar Faura’s cinematography that shines and there are many scenes that are spectacular to behold – it would be very interesting if he too signed up for the ‘Jurassic World’ sequel as it is very likely he would do a very good job.
‘A Monster Calls’ is ultimately very watchable and at times, mesmerising in its animated sequences but the film’s ambitious themes exceed Bayona’s grasp who makes his usual catalogue of errors as the film is emotionally manipulative and tonally uneven. However, a strong cast and stunning cinematography are able to elevate Bayona’s direction but Bayona still hasn’t convinced me he has what it takes to handle an action film, particularly the stature that the ‘Jurassic Park’ series has. He will need to make sure he can blend narrative with spectacle and at the moment, I just cannot picture the results. Only time will tell if he was the right decision. But as for ‘A Monster Calls’, it has potential and it is generally sound with numerous flaws.