A Monster Calls

Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) has been forced to mature beyond his actual 12 years of age. Between his parents divorce, his mother dying of terminal cancer and the bullies at school, he can only find solace in the brief moments he gets with his mother and whenever he gets moments to draw. Then one night at 12:07 a.m., he gets a visit from the monster of his dreams who is the mystical Yew tree that comes to life and wants to share three stories with Conor. The only requirement for the young lad is to listen, consider the moral of each story and then after the three tales are shared with him, he must tell the Monster his nightmare. Between each storytelling, Conor experiences different layers of the grief process and realises he might have to live with his strict grandmother for a time. The question is why the Monster needs to hear his nightmare? 

This is a fascinating film that has a child at the heart of the story and is marketed to children, but this film is better suited for parents. It provides a unique depiction of how a child reacts to the potential loss of a family member. A Monster Calls is beautifully animated and ventures into a dark period that occurs in the lives of children around the world. This moves it outside of the realm of innocent family fun and into the category of an introspective and contemplative drama. 

At the heart of this dark and melancholic film is the captivating performance by Lewis MacDougall who portrays the young Coner with a style that is well beyond his years. He captures the essence of a child’s mourning process and seeing how he responds to stresses that would  be difficult for any adult to handle. He is surrounded by the stellar adult cast members of Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell and Sigourney Weaver, but it is MacDougall’s acting and his relationship with the Monster (Liam Neeson) that carries the film. Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) manages to show how one family comes to terms with death, loss and change. The parental standards can be put into question, but it depicts the harsh realities of how different people respond during these exceptionally difficult times. It is not what audiences may have come to expect from an animated film and does place A Monster Calls into a category unto itself. 

The work of the script writer, director and the animators did deliver a full range of emotions and moral juxtapositions. The artistic interpretation of the Monster manages to toe the line between terrifying and comforting, which was no small feat. Even though he does resemble Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy, the talking tree has a philosophical depth that does work in a therapeutic manner for the young star. He became the conscience of Conor and provides the needed lessons for the young man to travel through this difficult time in his family’s life. Then for the the creature’s stories to be animated in beautifully drawn water colour gave the lighter side to this creature that is needed for the sake of the audience to experience warmth in this relationship. 

The marketing challenge for this dark soul-searching journey will be to determine the target audience for this film. The discussion of death and life’s changes are something that should be incorporated into a parents conversation with every child, but this proved to be a heavy-handed approach. This is a story that could help those who are raising children to get a glimpse into this topic and how to approach it with a child. The example set by the adults in the film are far from perfect, but it does show how difficult things can be for single parents and grandparents during these situations. 

Even though the quality of film is impeccable, this is a film for mature audiences and would not be suited for young children. For those who do engage with this thought provoking film, it should lead to conversations that will help children to know how they can deal with these difficult subjects. A beautifully crafted bit of story telling on a challenging topic that eventually touches everyone’s life. 

REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 

1 Corinthians 15:55 
Death is a subject matter that effects everyone and it effects some earlier than later. The issue with A Monster Calls was that the topic provides only hopeless answers. This may sound odd to many reading this review, because death is such a sad topic to discuss.

Death can be an exceptionally sad topic and should be handled respectfully, but it can provide to discussions of hope and assurance. Especially when Jesus is incorporated into the discussion, because through his story he is able to prove that death does not have to be something to fear.

Through the work of Jesus, His followers can have assurance of where they will spend eternity and it can provide hope for their future. He is the conquerer of death and gives an answer to the inevitable question, ‘What happens after we die?’ It is a better answer than any tree monster or other religion or philosophy can offer.

Passage to consider on the topic: Matthew 10:28, John 11: 25, John 14:1-3,

If you are hurting, one of the best books on the subject of suffering:

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Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.