November 3, 2016
2016 will be remembered as the year when little kids have been meeting monsters in various films. First, there was "The BFG (aka Big Friendly Giant)" in August. "Pete's Dragon" followed in September. By sheer coincidence or not, here comes a third one.
Conor O'Malley is a very lonely boy who finds solace through his artwork. His mother Lizzie is dying of a terminal illness. His father had left them and now lives in another country. His grandmother is very strict and cold to him. His classmates bully him both emotionally and physically. His only friend it seems is a giant tree monster who appears to him at the unholy time of 12:07 am to tell him bizarre stories.
"A Monster Calls" is an elegant and deeply emotional film by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona. The live action scenes were seamlessly edited with beautiful stop-motion and watercolor animation work. When we first saw the monster come to life with his fiery eyes with the deep voice of Liam Neeson, we were transfixed to his every move and every word. When the Monster's stories about the Prince and the Apothecary came to colorful life, the images were mesmerizing. The cinematography of Conor's nightmare in the field with the church, the graveyard and the old yew tree was remarkable with symbolic camera angles.
Very rarely do child actors get Oscar recognition, but Lewis MacDougall deserves to be cited in his poignant performance as Conor O'Malley. He really goes through the roughest roller coaster of emotions here and brings us all along with him on his ride. Conor has a lot of rage boiling inside him and we all feel it even when its bottled up in young MacDougall's face. His deep-set yet sallow eyes can really communicate volumes of pain. This is only his second film after his debut as a Lost Boy in the forgettable disaster called "Pan" (2015), and his future as an actor looks bright indeed.
MacDougall holds his own alongside his veteran co-stars who had all been Oscar-nominees in the past. As mentioned, Liam Neeson intoned the intimidating yet oddly comforting voice of the "Monster". Felicity Jones as Conor's sick mother. I wish she had a longer part because every scene of mother and son together was steeped in bittersweet chemistry. Sigourney Weaver had the thankless role as Conor's "terror" grandmother. She had that one scene of profoundly aghast silence where she shone through.
There were lengthy sequences featuring Toby Kebbell as Conor's estranged father and James Melville as school bad boy Harry. Yes, they made Conor's life more miserable. However, in the final analysis, these complicating side-stories could have actually diluted the more critical central issue of the film between Lizzie and Conor.
The book upon which this film had been based was written by Patrick Ness published in 2011. Ness also wrote the script of this film. The story of the book developed from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, a British children's book author who had fought her own battle with breast cancer and lost in August 2007. Knowing this background, you can see where the character of the mother was coming from.
The main essence of this film was about healing, and the lengths we take to achieve healing in all aspects in our lives. Sometimes we get too caught up in our longing for the healing of others, we forget to heal ourselves. In its own artistic sensibility and stylistic manner, this heavy film helps us realize that we need healing as much as others do. 8/10.