In what seems those distant days before CGI, Walt Disney introduced to popular cinema, with Song of the South, the combining of live-action and animation, and a signature lightness of touch in doing this was further developed in Mary Poppins. Now, with CGI, it has proliferated, and sometimes applied to more weighty themes. This is the case with A Monster Calls.
Set in contemporary England, a boy, Conor O’Malley, struggles to come to terms with his divorced mother’s cancer, an apparently unsympathetic maternal grandmother, and an ultimately disappointing visit from his father, remarried and living in Los Angeles. He also has to live with the attentions, including physical violence, of a school bully.
The nightmarish CGI sequences are transformations of features Conor can see from his house: a hilltop church with a graveyard and yew tree alongside it. The tree becomes the eponymous monster, voiced in ways both threatening and avuncular by Liam Neeson.
At intervals, the film includes the monster telling Conor three stories, related in an oblique way to his situation. These stories also take the form of animations, but they are in a very different style to those of the main plot. They are more like looser, sketchbook illustrations. In the final sequence, this storybook style makes sense while simultaneously providing mystery (I will avoid the detail of this, since it would be a spoiler). The monster demands of Conor that after the third story he should tell a fourth, working out the underlying truth behind his own terrifying visions.
A Monster Calls has some excellent performances. Lewis MacDougall, as Conor, succeeds in communicating awkwardness and aggression while remaining a character who is essentially likable. Sigourney Weaver gives a focused performance as the controlling grandmother, but with her own stresses and frailties occasionally showing. Toby Kebbell pitches it right as the well intentioned but failing father, and Felicity Jones, as the mother, further establishes herself as one of our finest screen actors, conveying the weakening condition of cancer in a poignant but unsentimental way. There is a brief scene where we see her naked back, and just through Jones’s posture we can believe in the seriousness of her character’s illness.
A Monster Calls has not been a box office hit, possibly because the writer, Patrick Ness (adapting his own book), and director, J.A. Bayona, commendably avoid easy answers, and as an audience we are confronted with both sadness and rage. There is also, though, hope when the difficult relationship between child and grandmother is resolved. It is, for sure, a film worth seeing, and there is a depth of purpose to reflect on, not least the way stories can interpret, and even negotiate through, life’s tragedies.
About the reviewerRobert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and he is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).