Unusual a subject as it is for children, ‘A Monster Calls’ is about death. Even more unusual is that the person who thought up the story, never lived to write it. Siobhan Dowd got the idea for the novel on which this film is based, but, prolific as she was as a writer, died of breast cancer shortly after, and so her publishers asked Patrick Ness to write it.
An allegorical tale about how a school boy in England struggles to cope with his mother’s illness as she lies stricken by cancer, the film has great atmosphere, striking animation and good acting. Essentially, it is a message from beyond the grave about the best way to deal with the loss of a loved one. Apparently, it is to grieve, and then to release the person from our mortal coils; to evolve ourselves to understand that what the dying person needs most, is for us to let him or her go. It is a simple and profound truth, but a very difficult one for children, and this is where, in the portrayal of a young protagonist with wisdom way beyond his years, the movie may have stretched our credibility.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) dreams vividly, with his sleeping hours occupied by astonishing images of the earth swallowing up his home. Outside his house is a magnificent ‘Yew’ tree, a miracle of nature with every leaf and branch full of medicinal and curative properties. His mother (Felicity Jones), meanwhile, in and out of hospital, is put on one medication after another, all to no effect. The malignant cancer cells gallop on unchecked through her broken body. However, the last medicine she is administered has prescient significance. It is derived from properties of the ‘Yew’ tree.
The tree is alive in Conor’s imagination and he has long conversations with it. This is the ‘monster’ in the movie and he ( the voice and the movements of Liam Neeson) tells Conor three stories with deeper meaning. He explains that stories are not just fictional narratives, but a way of understanding the world. So though the monster’s three stories appear to be like fairy tales, they are actually fables about truths of life – how you don’t always know who the guilty are and how they are not always punished, how there is a difference between being a professionally efficient individual and being a nice person, and about how if you don’t assert yourself in this world you will remain invisible to others. These are important lessons and nicely visualized through this animated Yew tree who looks uncannily like Liam Neeson.
So it is a dark film about an unhappy subject, with very few moments of lightness. The only really elevating scene in the film is when the grandmother who Conor hates, and who, in turn, is constantly annoyed by him, finally hug each other. The lady (Sigourney Weaver in a fine performance) explains to Conor that though the two do not particularly like each other, what they have in common is a woman they love and are distraught at the thought of losing. But even this scene has an adult edginess to it, quite foreboding in a children’s movie.
Spanish born director, Juan Antonio Garcia Bayona, has made this film with passion, and with a lovely visual design that may owe quite a bit to the great surreal painters and film makers of his nation. The dreams/ nightmares are quite ‘Daliesque’. So, despite the unremmitting sadness, ‘ A Monster Calls’ is worth seeing.