Review: Heartwrenching Gothic Fable Film “A Monster Calls” Conveys Authentic Emotion


Rebecca Boyajian

Heartbreakingly real and raw, “A Monster Calls” brings Patrick Ness’ 2011 novel off the page and onto the screen with roaring life and haunting emotion. The gothic fairytale drama directed by J.A Bayona, is saturated with sadness and will cause tears to flow from from start to finish.  Centered around a young boy who struggles to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness, the film pulls the audience through his emotions, making viewers feel frustrated, helpless and crushed right there with him. While the film seems a little slow at times, any film that evokes authentic emotion from audiences (as “A Monster Calls” certainly does) overpowers its flaws.

The $43m budget film has made $30.3m in the box office since it’s release. While the film’s trailers are seemingly targeted to youthful audiences, it’s PG-13 rating does not serve as a major warning of obscene language, sexual activity or graphic violence but rather a warning of the film’s rather serious and dark theme of death.  

Every night as Connor (Lewis MacDougall) sleeps, he is haunted by a dark recurring nightmare. He and his mother (Felicity Jones) stand upon the graveyard outside his home and the earth beneath them begins to crumble and open up. Connor grabs her hand and struggles to muster the strength to keep his grip on her as she hangs off of the edge. Slowly he can feel her slipping away, and at that moment every night that, he wakes up.

The film opens up with the haunting dream. The realistic special effects and chilling fear of the nightmare grabs attention immediately. In order to maintain the attention awarded to the film in the beginning, the monster is introduced fairly quickly.

Connor’s deep sadness and frustrating emotions awake a nearby healing yew tree (voiced raspily by Liam Neeson) who wishes to save him.  The monster tells Connor he should expect four visits from him and three different true stories; however, on his fourth visit it will be the boy’s turn to admit to the tree his own story, the truth behind his recurring nightmare.

The Yew tree emerging from the ground in itself is a fantastic use of special effects, as is the intricate animation of the creature. Focus Features, the company that produced the film is well known for their stop motion animation skills showcased in films like “Coraline” and “Paranorman.” The monster is not entirely animated through stop motion;however, the scale to which they had to build the monster’s model is incredible, and anyone familiar with the intricacy  and time consumption involved with stop motion will surely appreciate the film.  Neeson shows off his polished voicing abilities as the Yew tree, perfected through roles like the lion Aslan in “The Chronicles of Narnia” films and his Good Cop/Bad Cop character from the “Lego Movie.”

The monster’s three stories, meant to aid Connor in coming to terms with and dealing with his mother’s terminal illness, also aid in his other problems. The heavy weight upon the  British 12 year old’s shoulders is only worsened by bullies who torment him at school, his father (Toby Kebbell) who lives far away in America with another family and his rather stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who he is forced to live with while his mother stays in hospital.

The film does an impeccable job of telling meaningful morals through the wise tree monster. His stories divulge subtle meaning and lessons of faith, truth and letting go. Though the stories are told by the yew tree, the visuals are derived from the ample imaginative resources within Connor’s brain, we see the story exactly as he does. The bright water color inspired animations of the stories provide for a welcome colorful contrast to the gray dreary tones of the real aspects of the film.

The graveyard scene that occurs toward the conclusion of the film where Connor admits his truth through the fourth story is crushing and showcases the young actor’s immense acting abilities. Though fairly new to the acting scene (only previously appearing in 2015 film “Pan” as Nibbs),  Lewis MacDougall shines in his emotional role. Especially in scenes where crying is necessary, which more often than not it is, the young actor conveys genuine emotion and is able to stand up to the acting skills of his more established counterparts, Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver.

While the film is definitely not a light watch for a public venture to the movies, the imaginative and honest film is a must watch. However, due to the strong themes, some viewers understandably may prefer to watch this emotional film in the comfort of home.