Film Review: A Monster Calls, An Evocative and Mature Modern Fairy Tale

Photograph courtesy of Focus Features Photograph courtesy of Focus Features There are children’s films, and then there are films with children in them that seem more geared toward adults. Spanish-born director J.A. Bayona seems to specialize in the latter, with harrowing and terrifying stories about childhood trauma and kids being separated from their parents in such works The Orphanage and The Impossible (if this trend continues, in his next film—the Jurassic World sequel—the parents will eaten by dinosaurs in front of their kids). And while most of us can’t necessarily identify with the horrors associated with ghost stories or families being torn apart by a tsunami, the event that threatens to separate mother from son in A Monster Calls is something many can identify with. With a screenplay by Patrick News (based on his novel), A Monster Calls is the story of Conor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall), whose mother (Felicity Jones, currently also in Rogue One) is losing her on-again/off-again battle with cancer and has to be taken from their home to the hospital for one last chance at a cure. Conor is also being tormented by bullies at school, and is handed the ultimate torment (in his eyes) of having to stay with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) while mom is in the hospital. In the midst of this upheaval, Conor is woken in the night by a visiting, enormous monster (who seems to have sprung to life from a nearby tree and is voiced by Liam Neeson, who is also currently in Silence). But the monster isn’t there to terrorize Conor; he’s there to save him and attempts to do so by telling him three stories, for which he demands one told to him in return—one which reveals the truth about Conor’s world at that moment and the world that will likely come to be. There have certainly been many films over the years about the power of a child’s imagination, but A Monster Calls is certainly among the best. It’s not a secret that Conor has conjured this creature to help him deal with the misery of his life, and the rather obtuse lessons of the monster’s three stories (all visualized using beautiful animation) are not easily understood by the boy until he confesses the truth of his emotions and outlook for his future. Photograph courtesy of Focus Features Photograph courtesy of Focus Features The situation is further complicated when Conor’s father (Tody Kebbell) returns from his new life (and family) in America to check on his son. Conor assumes his well-meaning but weak dad will stick around until his mother is better, but that isn’t the case, and it becomes clear that Conor can add abandonment issues to his long list of life grievances. A Monster Calls plays out like an adult fairy tale, weaving the psychological impact of possibly losing a parent to disease after already having lost one to divorce. The monster becomes not simply a tool to comfort the boy but also one to makes sure he survives the many hardships he will face should his mother die. Weaver gives a fascinating performance as a woman who knows she must help to raise this young man, but she’s not certain she has the tools to do so. It doesn’t help that he absolutely hates her, and in one moment of pure destruction, he turns himself into the villain temporarily. Bayona is a firm believer in the resilience and survival skills of young minds, and MacDougall embodies all of these qualities while still acknowledging Conor’s frailty in not knowing his own fate. That moment in our lives when we realize—and even embrace—the idea that we won’t live forever can be tough on some, especially at Conor’s age. Tears will be shed during A Monster Calls; there’s no getting around that. But the viewing experience is unlike most other films with level of special effects. The monster (who bears something of a resemblance to Groot—I won’t lie) featured here is one of those rare CG creations that actually seems to possess a soul, and is not just a creation for audiences to look at with amazement but not really care about what its purpose is in the story. The monster’s life lessons are the story, and it is very likely that you will be moved by them. To read my exclusive interview with A Monster Calls director J.A. Bayona, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.