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A Monster Calls is a gorgeous film with a big heart and without a thought in its head. It’s a fable of sorts. A type of story that wears what it’s about on its sleeve.
It is what it is and nothing more. A Monster Calls is a simple movie about a complicated moment in Connor’s (Lewis MacDougall) life. His Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. That alone would make a dozen movies to be entered at Sundance.
But J.A. Bayona and his screenwriter Patrick Ness have added a Monster (Liam Neeson). The Monster acts as a storyteller. He shows up one night at Connor’s house and intones that he shall tell him three stories and then Connor must tell the Monster his nightmare. He agrees reluctantly. After all, when a Monster calls and tells you to do something it’s generally agreed upon you do it.
From here we know what happens. We know because like all fables it’s a story we’ve heard before. The Monster will tell Connor stories that are tangentially or symbolically related to what Connor is feeling about his Mum, her dying, his Dad, or his Grandma. Connor’s mum, Lizzie, will die from whatever disease she has. It’s never discussed. This is best. People who die of something nameless don’t have to work that hard for our affection.
“Dying is easy” as they say. Coming up with why someone is dying is hard. You tend to have to look up symptoms and talk a lot of medical mumbo jumbo. This is a kids movie. It would not do to talk mumbo jumbo.
I loved the scenes where the Monster told Connor stories. Especially the watercolor visuals that Connor imagined as the Monster weaves his tale. But then the movie would go back to Connor and his dying Mum, and his Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) and I could care less.
Time after time, scene after scene Connor acts out in such a destructive way that would have most other kids committed or at the very least sent to their room. He’s given a pass because as the adults intone, aware of his situation, “What would be the point of that?” Presumably, the point of someone being the adult to this poor messed up, possibly psychotic kid, is not something that occurs to them.
There’s a moment during one of the Monster’s stories he asks Connor to help him destroy a Church. The boy, who we’ve seen loves to destroy things, eagerly agrees. The movie does a jump cut to reveal Connor was not destroying an imaginary Church but his Grandma’s sitting room. This kid absolutely demolishes it. The moment is jaw dropping.
When his Grandma comes in and sees the damage, she is speechless. She lets out a primal wail and then backs out. I get it. It’s meant to show the rage and grief of a young boy, and how he’s so distraught, he can’t comprehend how destructive his anger is. His Grandmother’s reaction is appropriate. She has no idea what to say or do. She leaves before she’ll say or do something she regrets. The next morning Connor’s Dad (Toby Kebbell) shows up and makes him breakfast, but doesn’t reprimand him, saying “What would be the point in that?”. Shouldn’t someone pull him aside and say, “Look I get it you’re angry, scared, and confused. But kid, you just destroyed an old lady’s furniture and mementos of her life. Your pain doesn’t supersede everyone else’s.”?
But Jeremiah you say. “The movie is from the kid’s perspective. He doesn’t know any better.” I get it. But just because he doesn’t know any better, doesn’t mean the adults shouldn’t either. “But isn’t the point that adults shouldn’t treat kids like they’re fragile? Isn’t the point exactly what you’re saying, that someone should do something?”
I don’t think the movie has thought that far. The movie is pretty to look at, but you shouldn’t let that fool you into thinking it has any real thoughts. It’s mainly interested in being “magical” and “profound.” It tells us over and over, people are messy and complicated but never really shows us that they are. Connor and his brood are as generic as possible. His Mum is just Mum, his Dad is just Dad, and is Grandma is just Grandma.
These are not people or even characters. They’re stock personalities. Cliches would be nice. At least they have names.
J.A. Bayona is a brilliant visual storyteller, but when he’s forced to deal with the real world, he stumbles. The actors all turn in respectable performances. Considering what they’re given to play with it’s a miracle, they turn in what they do. The stories within the story are more fascinating and interesting than the story itself.
A Monster Calls is a kids movie, and they’ll probably enjoy it. It’s a dark, visually impressive, and possibly for them, even magical film. You should take your kids to see it. For those without kids, you can enjoy the fact you have no reason to see A Monster Calls.