“How does the story begin?”
“With a boy too old to be a kid; too young to be a man.”
Storytelling is a human tradition, a necessity, a tool for survival. The stories we tell ourselves and others help us to make sense of our muddled lives and the complicated world around us. We each have our own personal mythology built from the stories we have consumed and cultivated from our first breath. In times of trauma and suffering, we call upon a library of characters, morals and quotes for support, or escape to hide in the comforting tales of our childhood.
A Monster Calls is an honestly performed tale of a young boy stumbling through a muddy passage from kid to man, complicated by the worst of family crises. Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is introduced as a solitary child who cares not only for himself, but for his terminally ill mother too (Felicity Jones), much to his grandmother’s (Sigourney Weaver) discontent. Conor is clearly a boy riddled with confused emotions, plagued by both a recurring nightmare and a classically over-played school bully (plus sniggering henchmen). As seemingly the only friend in his life begins to slip from his grasp, Conor finds solace in the stories passed through generations.
Patrick Ness’s story (author and screenwriter) has all the traits of a classic fairytale surrounding the lonely, flawed and peculiar protagonist. There is the ‘evil’ grandmother who represents a future without his mother, a wayward father who brings hope only to snatch it away, the school bully who makes him invisible and the heroic stranger who makes everything alright, but who just happens to be a figment of Conor’s spectacularly overactive imagination, all painted with a palette of warm colours and liberally splashed with pathetic fallacy.
I was impressed by the filmmakers’ masterful curation of sound, particularly in the brave use of silence, obediently filled with shock and raw emotion by the transfixed audience. For me, the very best thing about the film was the enchanting animation which had me scraping my jaw from the sticky floor in awe of its beauty. I wish I could have stayed in that watercolour animated world narrated by Liam Neeson’s voice of molten chocolate to the end of days, but it was not to be. Back in the real world of Conor’s bedroom, everything seemed less vibrant and interesting and I had left much of my capacity for appreciation in the colourful scene that preceded it. Perhaps the animation was just too good for the transition between the two media to be smooth or comfortable. But perhaps that jarring transition serves to force the audience into Conor’s confused and conflicted young mind.
I was warmed by the films attempts to question conventions of storytelling and imagery in its portrayal of good and evil, characterised by the quote “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.” The most obvious example of this is, of course, the monster, who, for all intents and purposes, is a good guy. His entrance however, accompanied by chest-tightening sound effects and his curiously enflamed insides (he’s a tree), could terrify some of its target audience. But that is exactly what Bayona intended. With all the features of a ‘monster’, Conor’s becomes a source of comfort.
Despite its occasionally unconvincing characterisation and unsubtle hints, A Monster Calls is an enchantingly nostalgic and magical movie which wraps its roots around your heart and drags you through the full spectrum of human emotion. Films which inspire and motivate, however short-lived those emotions might be, are few and far between these days, and uniquely complex storylines even more so. I came away with a host of vivid memories from different scenes, animated and emotional, rather than with one impression of the spectacular bombast which saturates mainstream cinema. That’s the way films should be and I look forward to plunging into its magic once more.
Look out for A Monster Calls in the New Year. This is definitely a film to catch on the big screen. Don’t just wait for the DVD!