I went into A Monster Calls not knowing what to expect, other than being given the title and a very brief summary about a boy, his mother, and a monster. Now, having seen the film, I’m having difficulty trying to express how I feel about it. So let’s start with the basics.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is 12 years old—as the story puts it, no longer a boy, not yet a man. Conor’s father is mostly out of the picture. Conor deals with pitying looks from teachers and pain from bullies at school. He has to contend with his harpy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) barging into the house on a regular basis. Home ought to be a place of refuge for him. Instead, there are signs everywhere that his single mother (Felicity Jones) is fighting a terminal illness.
One night, at exactly seven minutes after midnight, a monster comes to visit Conor. It’s a huge, fearsome yew tree-being (Liam Neeson) that seems to burn from within when it’s angry. The monster tells Conor that it will return to tell him three stories. In return, Conor must tell the monster a fourth story: the truth behind his recurring nightmare.
It sounds like a fairy tale, and it has all the trappings of one, but A Monster Calls is no fairy tale. Or if it is, it is like the original folk tales the Grimm brothers collected, full of real anguish and destruction along with the magic. And this film definitely has magic.
It is visually stunning, both in live-action work and in CGI animation. The music is perfectly matched to the action, and the acting is beautiful throughout. MacDougall’s portrayal of Conor is superb and moving, with the authentic feel of what a 12-year-old child in these circumstances would have to bear. The monster is a wild thing out of the wood and the old world, by turns ferocious, wise and tender.
A Monster Calls earns its PG-13 rating because of the painful subject matter of facing death, the chaotic and sometimes-violent emotions that go along with the experience. For children who have recently lost—or are in the process of losing—a parent, it may be unbearable to watch.
My father died when I was the same age as Conor, and I’ll freely admit this film left me an emotional wreck. Nonetheless, I can’t recommend it highly enough. A Monster Calls is beautiful, tragic without being maudlin, and moving in all the right ways. It is true in the way certain types of fiction are true. It will live in your head for a very, very long time.
Release Date: December 23, 2016 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Alcohol/Drugs: 2 (use of prescription drugs and drug therapy, implied use of poison)
Language: 1 (the occasional “damn”)
Nudity: 1 (a very brief scene of partial nudity from the back, waist up)
Sexuality: 1 (very mildly-implied homoerotic interest from a bully)
Violence: 3 (scenes of bullying, scary monster, animated murders, destruction of property, depiction of terminal illness, death)