Despite its title, A Monster Calls is not a monster movie, though monsters lurk within. It’s more like a darker, sadder Inside Out: Both are stories about children whose emotions are too overwhelming for them to process, and both take those emotions seriously. Neither gives glib answers.
A Monster Calls explores a common but devastating emotion: the grief — and attendant rage and fear — that comes with losing a parent. The movie starts off looking like a conventional children’s fantasy story, but it morphs slowly into something surprising, and all its own.
In A Monster Calls, a young boy struggles to process his mother’s terminal illness
Based on a novel by Patrick Hess, A Monster Calls is the story of a 12-year-old English boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) and his mother (Felicity Jones), who has cancer and not very long to live. Worried for his mother, and frustrated by the ways his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) interferes with their life together, Conor spends most of his time at home. When he’s not at home, he’s trying not to get bullied at school.
Conor likes to paint and draw, things his mother also liked to do before she had him. His parents split up when he was small, and his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in Los Angeles now with his new wife and child. Conor’s mother conceals the degree of her sickness from him, but he suspects anyhow.
The home Conor and his mother live in looks out onto a graveyard outside a church, with an enormous yew tree hanging over it. Every night, Conor dreams that a giant sinkhole opens up beneath the church, and the graveyard — and his mother — is sucked into it. He grabs her hand, but loses her in the dream every time.
Then, one night, the yew tree comes knocking (Liam Neeson), a giant monster-like form that isn’t kind to Conor, but is there to help him all the same. He tells Conor fairy tales that deviate from the usual happy ending, which confuses and frustrates Conor, who doesn’t know the point of the stories. But the monster continues to visit him, even after Conor’s mother goes to the hospital and he moves in with his grandmother. And as the situation worsens, Conor keeps looking for ways to form the questions he wants answered.
Though occasionally overwrought, A Monster Calls is honest and imaginative
All the plot elements of A Monster Calls — the bully, the distant dad, the sweet mother, the stern grandmother, and, of course, the monster who only appears to Conor — seem like conventional coming-of-age material. This is practically a laundry list of bad things that can happen to a 12-year-old, and it feels, at the start, as if the movie is going to be ponderously derivative.
But by the end, there’s nothing conventional about it. A Monster Calls is effective because its setup is familiar, but its execution isn’t. Blending watercolor animation and fantastical elements with heart-wrenching live-action, it keeps subverting expectations. When Conor is angry, he acts angrily in destructive ways — but the film doesn’t chide him for it. When he is scared, the yew tree doesn’t tell him to stop being afraid. It forces him to lean into the fright.
The monster’s fairy tales are rendered as gorgeous, swirling animated watercolors, a technique that echoes Conor’s artwork as well as the emotions bubbling turbulently inside. We see everything from his perspective, which means that when Conor’s dreamworlds collide with his real one, we see that, too, and it stirs half-forgotten memories.
It seems, at times, that director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) doesn’t trust his own story to provide enough emotional heft, and layers in swelling music and touching moments to get the audience to feel, as if we can’t get there on our own. Strangely enough, that contradicts the monster’s call: to confront fears and emotions honestly, to experience them organically, and to come to terms with them in the way that is best suited for each of us, individually. We can’t be afraid of our darkest feelings, the yew tree says — not if we want to experience healing, anyhow.
This is what A Monster Calls shares with Inside Out: an approach to difficult feelings that doesn’t insist on always behaving in a societally appropriate way. Death is traumatic, especially if you’re young. Telling a person not to be afraid, or trying to cheer them up, is not the appropriate response.
So A Monster Calls gets bonus points for taking its subject seriously — though that has the side effect of making this a rather intense movie, probably unsuitable for younger children. But it is an unblinking, moving, gorgeously shot, and even cathartic experience. Finding the way through difficult emotions isn’t easy for anyone, but art that takes its audience through the experience honestly and thoughtfully can help provide a roadmap.
A Monster Calls opened in limited theaters on December 23 and wide on January 6.