When a young boy on the cusp of tragedy reaches breaking point, a mythical monster in the form of a humanoid yew tree arrives to tell him three tales which will help him through.
This is the premise of J.A. Bayona’s (The Orphanage) latest visual feast, from a YA book written by Patrick Ness (Ness also wrote the screenplay). I came to the film having already read the book. Thankfully though, I don’t need to be that guy telling you the book is ‘so much better’, because frankly it’s a pretty even experience across the mediums.
There are a couple of subplots which aren’t delved into as deeply in the film (which is more to do with running time than anything else I would imagine). In particular a plot involving a school bully is barely fleshed out and leads to a major climax moment feeling a little unearned. But I’m nitpicking.
The book itself is rife with visual flair. The monster and the tales he tells are an extreme workout for even a wick imagination, but in film form they are brought to life wondrously. Liam Neeson’s baritone voice alone is enough to send chills down the spine, but when coupled with the excellent CGI creation; a worn old tree creaking and growling to a tiny little boy, it makes the eyes widen and the jaw hang open. And the stories are a blend of unique animated styles which feel like a storybook bursting into existence. It’s the kind of treat that bravura directors are able to thrust upon us, and it is glorious.
Despite the fantastical elements of the story this feels very small and intimate. It’s foremost a character exploration, and a deconstructing of emotions we feel when dealing with impending tragedy. Bayona keeps his camera close in much of the time, and we are thrust into the chaotic life of a son spending every waking moment in the shadow of the cancer which is eating away at his mother. It feels tight and inescapable, and of course that’s the point. Horror does not let you get free lightly.
On the negative side I found Sigourney Weaver to be horribly miscast as the somewhat icy grandma. Perhaps the character description in the preceding sentence seems like easy fayre to Weaver fans, but she’s just not right here. I found myself pining for a Maureen Lipman type in her place, and many of her scenes had me jarring and pulled away from the moment.
The other issue is the somewhat heavy-handed approach to the emotional beats in the film (and there are a lot – take a kleenex or two). It’s unclear whether this is due to Bayona’s familiarity with the horror genre or just an inescapable element of the source material. But whenever a crying moment is about to happen, you feel like the film is sort of announcing it for you. It doesn’t just happen organically. It’s like you are being instructed to start sobbing rather than it just taking place as a result of the drama. It’s a shame because so much of the film is done impeccably that these dramatic crescendos should be the crowning glory, yet instead are a little too Hallmark Channel.
But don’t let that discourage you from either seeing the film or reading the book. A Monster Calls is an honest look at the human experience in times of sadness, loss and desperation. These are some of the hardest things to deal with, and Bayona’s film might just help you through a tough time.