There are times when films explore artistic environments suited to their most prevalent ambitions. There are times when films wander into obscure waters and drown within the cesspool of lost potential due to their overambition. A wall is created at the beginning of every viewing experience, and it is up to the film to lift the audience past their expectations, clearing that wall of doubt, hype, or whatever expectation it’s made up of. A curious case emerges whenever someone decides to adapt a book into film, especially for those familiar with the former. While not always living up to the expectation of its source material, films have a tendency to do one of two things: stay true to the novel in most respects, or stray from its narrative roots and change what gave the novel its identity. A Monster Calls seems to follow the course set by its roots, however in a twist of fate, that seems to be the utmost cause of the film’s most frequent flaws.
Never have I ever been convinced directly after watching a film that it would be better suited in novel form. The term “The book is better” is common enough within society to make the claim seem rudimentary, however there is an interesting context to my mindset. I have never heard of A Monster Calls prior to seeing the trailer for the film. While knowing the film was based on a book thanks to the opening credits, I had watched the film from a perspective that it was a movie and movie alone. Even so, as the ending credits rolled I pondered the experience I was given and the notion that appeared was that it could have been more. More context, more build-up, more emphasis on words and their weight upon the situations. The inner creeping of a disturbed and depressed little boy would do wonders to increase the mood of his desire to destroy and to anguish. As well as give new life to the characters around him.
There is a meticulous, almost bizarre attention to detail, with little visual clues hidden throughout nearly every frame. The progression of the plot, the movement of the characters. Their facial features, their decisions. An emphasis on time and how it continues to move forward throughout every obstacle in life. Symbolism is incredibly prevalent throughout and gives life to almost every scene without hesitation. Sometimes this can be good, while in the case of A Monster Calls, there is a sense of mechanisms at work instead of letting things evolve naturally. The boy, Conor, is bullied, because he is. His mother is dying, because she is. His life peers down at him from its high and mighty pedestal, sneering at the pitiful existence its created. A universal theme of overcoming any and all adversity is portrayed, though not entirely focused, as while the film does well enough to portray the bad around Conor and how he deals with it, it doesn’t make the bad feel as though it has a purpose outside of making Conor feel bad. By the end, one would likely feel bad for Conor, but him alone. The world, the imagination, and the cheery dreariness that intrudes is all focused within the mind of a saddened boy.
With everything so stiffened in place, it feels too obviously set up to have the same emotional impact one may have should everything have a more natural tone. The monster, at one instant, preaches that most humans are neither good guys or bad guys, but somewhere in between. Early on, prior to that testament, everyone felt entirely so. The grandmother is stiff in her beliefs and entirely overbearing, portrayed as a cold, unforgiving woman. Conor’s mother, contrarily, is a sweet, open-minded soul dedicated to making everything relatively peaceful despite the situation. Most characters come across as a means of better suiting the narrative moral, pushing and pulling Conor back and forth between a mental place that works for him going forward. The inevitable, high-emotion ending scene has its intended effect, but could have been so much more should the film have focused more outside the perspective of only Conor.
All of this could be forgiven, however, entirely upon the merit put forth to make the film as dazzlingly intricate and deep as possible. There is a fluctuation of visual experimentation that teeters between live action and fully-animated cut scenes, along with a mix in-between. It helps create the fairy tale environment that A Monster Calls so desperately tries to evoke, and with (sometimes literally) flying colors. The Monster, specifically, is the drawing point visually to the film, and the amount of creaking it shows is enough to make every scene with it hard to tear one’s eyes away. I somewhat wish they didn’t have it crack jokes, but I digress. Outside of The Monster itself, the stories it tells are mostly in animated cutscenes of a historically minimalist style which adds energy to a typically slow film. If not for the dazzling displays, A Monster Calls does wonders with its use of symbolism all throughout. The way it plays with what’s real and what’s inside Conor’s head gives a lot of freedom in making the film all the more memorably distinct.
Lewis MacDougall makes his acting debut as Conor, and while I feel his performance was somewhat boosted by giving him the constant duty of remaining stone-faced, I felt he did well enough with what he was given to be treated as a serious child actor. I suppose his role as an emotionally unstable twerp mistreated by life adds a little leniency to his performance. The only person I felt had a questionable performance was Conor’s father, who at one point said he was “Shorry.” One may argue that it’s simply his accent, but I’m unsure. Liam Neeson as The Monster was a wonderful choice as a wise, intimidating figure, and while the voice was edited to a degree, Neeson’s booming voice leaves quite the impression.
There’s a lot of depth involved with A Monster Calls, so much so that it almost hampers its execution. Its dedication to filling in every hole and adding more despite that makes the film feel somewhat sloppy when it comes to making itself empathetic. There’s a very stark dedication to making the film feel entirely moving and human, despite the fantastical efforts. Working minimally is decent enough for a crotchety fool such as myself, however it leaves a lot to be desired with its refusal to focus upon any of the other characters. One will likely find a lot to devour with A Monster Calls, particularly in the visual effect and metaphor aspects. Should one also be introduced to an endearing and timeless tale of accepting what life deals you is a tougher story to sell.
Final Score: 7.5/10