Fantasy can be a great outlet for the various forms of emotional strain that we’re forced to deal with throughout our lives. It can be especially helpful for children, providing a fantastical outlet for pent up emotions and providing context for these feelings. That’s the intent behind A Monster Calls, the latest film from director J.A. Bayona. For all of its good intentions in providing an emotional, fantasy-based examination of grief and sorrow, A Monster Calls is just too much sadness layered upon even more sadness until you reach a sad conclusion with nothing more than feeling of absolute emotional numbness.
Not much in the world makes sense for Conor (Lewis MacDougall). He has trouble sleeping at night due to recurring nightmares. He’s bullied at school. Worst of all, his mother (Felicity Jones) is battling cancer. The future is full of doubt for young Conor. There’s no certainty that he’ll be able to co-habitat with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried with new children and now lives in America. It seems that the only refuge the young man has is in the fantastical drawing that he sketches. One night at 12:07am, strange happenings start to take place at his home and a massive old tree rises from the earth and promises to visit Conor over the coming days. During the first three visits the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) will regale the young boy with a story. On the fourth and final visit, it is up to Conor to tell the monster his story.
The biggest issue with A Monster Calls is the film’s tone, which is relentlessly sad. From the early frames until the closing credits, A Monster Calls stays with its somber tone only deviating slightly with moments of levity on extremely rare occasions. Adapting his own book, screenwriter Patrick Ness and director J.A. Bayona strike a mood that is so constant in its sadness that it becomes quite draining. As the film approaches its emotional crescendo, there’s almost nothing left to feel because the tragic tone of the film just wears you down to the point of numbness. The obvious aim for the conclusion of A Monster Calls is to get the waterworks flowing, but because the movie never shifts gears away from heartbreak none of the tragedy resonates.
The most impressive sequences of A Monster Calls are the stories that the monster tells young Conor. These fantastical tales unfold in spectacular animated sequences, watercolors splashing across the screen in vibrant color in medieval tales of morality. The rest of the film is sturdily constructed but these are the moments that standout from the pack of sadness that make up the majority of the film.
The performances of A Monster Calls are all solid, though nobody is really given a chance to standout beyond the sea of tears. Young Lewis MacDougall gives a strong performance in the emotionally draining role of Conor. The young actor is present in practically every scene and shows no signs of weakness as a thespian. Felicity Jones is modest in her role as the ailing mother, though her character’s illness quickly sidelines the actress for much of the film. As the grandmother, Sigourney Weaver does her best with an English accent and alternates between the stern matriarch and loving grandmother. And the booming Irish brogue of Liam Neeson gives a gravitas to the tales of the towering giant.
The story of A Monster Calls may be very difficult for those who’ve lost a loved one to cancer to sit through, and the film’s unrelenting tone will only make the movie even more of an emotional chore. It’s a competently made movie but one that is in desperate need of some levity and optimism amidst the strain of a child losing a parent. Fantasy can help people cope with tragedy as a form of escapism, employing metaphor as a means to explore touchy subjects. Sadly, A Monster Calls could use a lot more escapism to make its story resonate as intended.