I can’t say I’ve had much opportunity to see family films as part of this job, but A Monster Calls was a pleasant surprise as part of the London line up. Directed by J A Bayona and starring Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver alongside an impressive lesser known cast, the blend of high fantasy and touching realism throughout the film was enjoyable.
With a particularly nasty bully to deal with and his mother (Felicity Jones) suffering from a terminal illness, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) doesn’t have the easiest time at home or school. Only to add to this, his rather strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and rarely present father (Toby Kebbell) simply create more frustration for the understandably shaken Conor. This is perhaps why he seems oddly reluctant to listen to the stories of the Treebeard-does-Jackanory monster that is voiced by Neeson. He eventually yields and the result is spectacular.
“charming and enthralling”
Each of the monster’s tales are animated in the most gorgeous watercolour style and accompanied by the soothing gravitas of his voice, occasionally intercepted by a less than enthusiastic comment from the young Conor. The stories are charming and enthralling, but refuse to adhere to any black and white, good vs evil structure that one might have grown to expect from a fairy tale. They provide the greyness and harsh reality that our protagonist needs to cope with the uncertain life he currently lives.
Naturally, any film with such ambitious visual aims runs the risk of overusing or underachieving, but employing a large portion of the team from Pan’s Labyrinth allows A Monster Calls to thrive. Bayona doesn’t simply rely on big budget effects, and a large portion of the film is grounded in the reality of the situation, which evoked an enormous amount of genuine emotion from the audience.
A Monster Calls is a wonderful example of a family film that doesn’t assume its youngest audience member is incapable of understanding real emotion and evocative storytelling. Too often productions aimed at children assume far too little of their ability to process beyond pretty colours and childish dialogue, but Patrick Ness’ adaptation of his own book trusts in those still at school. An impressive and tender film.
Image: J A Bayona