While 2016 was many things, one definite positive was the quality of family/children’s films. The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Zootopia, Storks, Kubo and the Two Strings, Finding Dory, The BFG and Moana were home runs, and even lesser titles like Sing, The Angry Birds Movie, Trolls and The Secret Life of Pets were surprisingly tolerable (Norm of the North? Ratchet and Clank? Nope, no idea what you’re talking about). The former especially proved, as if it needed reinforcing, that kids do not need to be talked to, or have no thematic or intellectual substance amidst funny songs and jokes. Prejudice, identity, belief, family difficulties and community were tackled with tact by master storytellers.
Closing out the year, and starting the next here in the UK, A Monster Calls might just have surpassed them all. Adapted from Patrick Ness’ acclaimed novel, the newest film from Spanish auteur Juan Antonio Bayona centres on young Connor, a boy whose mother is dying from cancer. He’s bullied at school, has a bad relationship with his stern grandmother and distant father, and finds solace in drawing. One night, he’s visited by a tree monster from the local churchyard, who vows to tell him three stories. In return, Connor will tell a fourth, which is tied to his ‘truth’.
There’s so much good here, so I’ll get the simplest out of the way first: the performances are terrific all around, with Lewis O’Dougall giving a grounded but emotional turn as Connor. He can be very withdrawn, but definitely acknowledges the absurdity of what faces him, making him feel like a real modern child. Liam Neeson’s majestic, sage-like voice fits the Monster to a T, making you pay attention to every word he says as he delivers it with weight and authority. Sigourney Weaver does well as the strict but empathetic grandmother, managing a fairly good accent, while Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbell provide the requisite combination of care and uncertainty as Connor’s loving but burdened, even slightly frighten, parents.
Bayona’s direction and the special effects are stunning, especially for the meagre price tag of only $30 million. The Monster is imposing and highly detailed, not a twig or vine left half rendered, and we get some terrific watercolour sequences to illustrate his stories that contrast the film’s muted palette with vibrant colours. The score by Fernando Velazquez harkens back to the glory days of the late James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith, with music that veers from sombre to whimsical and oddly hopeful (it called to mind the likes of Horner’s Bicentennial Man and Land Before Time scores), with special props to the main theme and the track ‘The Truth’ that plays later in the film. However, Bayona’s frequent use of silence cannot be overlooked either, allowing many moments to simply speak for themselves via great composition and performance.
Ness’ screenplay manages to pull off something that isn’t easy: a realistic fantasy tale dealing heavily in the idea of grief and coping with the dying of a loved one in a non-saccharine fashion (where most films usually focus on the aftermath, A Monster Calls focuses on the here and now of death). Already a tall order for most storytellers, but Ness also frames this through a child’s eyes. In anyone else’s hands, this combination could’ve come off as manipulative and in bad taste, but Ness and Bayona get it right. The Monster isn’t some goofy sidekick who can fix everything, there’s no cartoonish or melodramatic take on Death in a figurative or literal sense, and the film is very streamlined in terms of jokes and action setpieces.
Ness keeps the story firmly focused around Connor’s guilt and how this strains his relationships as he, like many, would be, is left completely uncertain as to what to feel or do, and the terrible powerlessness that comes with losing a loved one. The dad’s line of ‘no happily ever after, just messily ever after’ perfectly sums up the film’s ethos: life isn’t a fairytale, but that’s no reason to feel shame over pain. It’s a natural part of life, not some storybook evil, and by accepting it we can become stronger. Not getting a last minute miracle is no reason to stop living.
What faults it has lie with the odd bit of preachy dialogue, but this is so rare that, to quote the film, ‘What would be the point?’ The point is to go see it: A powerful film with a sincere message that is invaluable to young and old alike, especially with all the uncertainty ahead, executed by people at the top of their artistic game. 2016 was a winning year for family films, and A Monster Calls was the perfect way to cap it off.
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