A Monster Calls directed by J.A. Bayona is based on a book written for children by Patrick Ness after collaborating with another author, Siobhan Dowd while dealing with cancer. A Monster Calls released shortly after similar movies I enjoyed like Pete’s Dragon and The BFG but it left the theater before I could blink. Perhaps the marketing for the movie did not reach too widely or maybe moviegoers had their fill of child with fantastical friend themes. I personally enjoy a good fantastical friend story. Unfortunately, the imaginary world and the magical companion in A Monster Calls is given little exploration since it only exists in a young boy’s dreams. Unlike Pete’s Dragon and The BFG, A Monster Calls magic takes place inside a child’s mind. Liam Neeson narrates the yew tree’s stories well, but unlike The BFG, the actual CGI of the tree leaves his facial expressions wooden. This is not a lovable companion like The BFG. Despite the obvious display of melodrama, I appreciated A Monster Calls for the themes it touches upon and its refusal to provide easy answers and happy endings simply because it’s a family movie.
Quick points of review:
- The plot is simple and ends predictably with tragedy but fortunately, refuses to provide the typical happy conclusion.
- The cast does a good job in their roles and Liam Neeson’s monster is fitting.
- The animation during the yew tree’s stories is a nice touch in contrast with the heavy themes.
- Heavy themes are explored in the film and avoid easy answers about grief and loss.
*Spoiler Alert! If you are avoiding spoilers, do not read further. You’ve been warned.*
A 12-year old boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), awakes from a nightmare. He makes breakfast for his mother (Felicity Jones) who tells him his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is coming since she is starting a new round of treatment. Conor later goes to school where a boy (James Melville) in his class turns around to stare at Conor. After school, the boy beats him up outside of the school with his friends.
The next night at 12:07 a monstrous tree (Liam Neeson) rips Conor out of his house. The tree tells Conor he must tell him three stories and then Conor must tell him the fourth story. Conor screams at the tree to go away. The fourth story is a truth Conor does not want to tell him. Then Conor is back in his bed in his room.
The next morning Conor’s grandmother visits his mother and brings wigs for her to try on. Conor does not want his grandmother there and tells his grandmother that his mother will get better like she always does. Conor’s grandmother then tells Conor that his mother is not going to get better and that the must have a talk later. Conor’s grandmother goes to sleep in his room for the night and tells her to not touch anything.
That night at 12:07 the yew tree comes to visit Conor once again in his dreams. The tree tells him his story about an evil stepmother who poisons a prince’s father, the king. The prince falls in love with a farmer’s daughter and they decide to be run away to be together. The prince and the farmer’s daughter decide to take a rest under a tree and when the prince wakes up, he finds she has been killed while asleep. The prince comes back to the kingdom and tells his people of what happened to the farmer’s daughter and they come to kill the queen. The yew tree rescues the queen and places her somewhere safe. Conor is upset the tree saved the wicked queen, but the tree explains it was the prince who killed the farmer’s daughter and the queen never killed the king. The Queen now lives in safety while the prince is now sitting on the throne. The tree explains that most people are somewhere in between good and bad. Conor asks how the story is supposed to save him from his grandmother and the tree says it is not Conor’s grandmother who needs to be saved.
Conor is beaten up again while at school by the same boy as before and he comes home to find his grandmother. Conor’s grandmother explains that his mother is at the hospital still because the chemotherapy is not working this time. Conor then speaks to his mother in her room and she tells him her treatment is not working and they have to try something new.
Conor is taken to his grandmother’s house where he will stay while his mother is in the hospital. His grandmother leaves and tells Conor not to touch anything. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) visits him from America and they go out for a good time away from the house. While out Conor’s father asks how he is doing and Conor explains his mother will get better if they can find the right treatment. Conor is invited to visit his father later, but Conor mentions he would rather live with him in America and not with his grandmother. The father says there is not enough room for him in America to live there but only to visit. His father drops him off at his Grandmother’s house after the visit.
After the visit with his father, Conor is frustrated and begins to jump on his grandmother’s furniture and tear items apart in the living room. He comes to the grandfather clock and rips a hand off it. The tree monster appears in the living room to tell Conor the second story.
The second story is about an apothecary who heals the sick and a parson who preached to people about witchery and spoke poorly about the apothecary’s profession. Due to this the apothecary lost business and one day the parson’s daughters become very ill and nothing can cure them. The parson visited the apothecary and said he would do anything even give the apothecary the yew tree if it will save his daughters. The parson says he will also preach praises of the apothecary’s work if he will save his daughters and the apothecary asks if he would give everything he believed. The parson says he will give everything up if only to save his daughters and the apothecary tells the parson then there is nothing he can do to help him. The next day the parson’s daughters died. The tree came for the parson and destroyed the parson’s house.
Conor asked the monster why he did not come for the apothecary instead and the tree explained because the Parson was willing to give up his faith as soon as there was a challenge. The tree starts to destroy the parson’s house and Conor joins in and smashes a window. Then Conor realizes he has completely destroyed his grandmother’s front room. Everything is destroyed and Conor’s grandmother comes home to the destruction and starts to cry.
The next morning Conor wakes up to his father cooking breakfast in the kitchen. His grandmother had to rush to the hospital to be with Conor’s mother. They work together and start cleaning up the living room. Later Conor goes to the hospital and his mother tells him they are going to try one last medicine from a yew tree. Then that night Conor speaks with the yew tree about him healing his mother and asks what will happen to his mother. The tree wonders why Conor does not know yet.
Conor is still bullied at school but instead of beating him up, the bully decides to treat Conor like he’s invisible. The tree appears and tells Conor his third story about an invisible man who asked for a monster so others could see him. Conor gets angry at his bully and runs at the boy. Conor punches the bully over and over. Then Conor is sent to the principle’s (Jennifer Lim) office and she decides he won’t be punished. The tree appears to Conor and says there are worse things than being invisible.
While at the hospital Conor’s mother says if he ever feels angry he can tell her but if he doesn’t want to tell her she will still understand. His mother’s treatment isn’t working and Conor asks what is the next medicine. His mother apologizes. Conor asks his grandmother to take him home. When he gets there he screams for the yew tree. Conor is upset with the tree for not healing his mother and the tree tells him he isn’t there to heal his mother. The tree came to heal Conor.
The tree says it’s time for the fourth story which is Conor’s. Conor relives his dream. He is standing on a ledge while holding onto his mother’s hand. He doesn’t want to let go. The ground begins to give way and he lets go of his mother. Conor asks the tree to see his mother but the tree says he let go of her. Conor tells the monster he could not stand it any longer and let go of his mother. He asks for the storm to come back because he deserves to be punished for wanting to let go of his mother.
The yew tree tells Conor he just wanted to end his pain which is very human because he was lying to himself. He references back to his stories about how there were two truths about the characters from each. Some things were true and not true because humans are complicated. Conor almost died while holding onto his mother at the edge because he refuses to speak the truth.
Conor wakes up to find his grandmother. They rush in her vehicle to the hospital and are stopped by a train. She says at least they have his mother in common even if they don’t have much else. When Conor sees his mother at the hospital he cries over her bed and tells her he doesn’t want her to leave. Conor’s mother looks up and sees the yew tree.
After his mother’s passing, Conor finds a sketchbook that once belonged to her. He finds the same yew tree who came to heal him in his mother’s sketchbook.
Geeky Talk’s Reaction to the Movie
I enjoyed A Monster Calls but the melodramatic story about a boy dealing with his mother’s cancer ends rather predictably. If you’ve watched the trailer, you already know for the most part how the movie ends before even seeing it fully. The plot is rather linear and the film misses the opportunity to place the audience with the extraordinary yew tree and his stories for very long. The heavy themes in A Monster Calls may have benefited from some more juxtaposed magic and beauty. Fortunately, happy endings and easy answers are not necessarily handed over simply because A Monster Calls is about a child. Facing death as a child is treated seriously and with respect in A Monster Calls avoiding the patronizing pat on the head happy ending cliché many family movies fall into.
The cast is wonderful. Lewis MacDougall does well with the portrayal of Conor and his interactions with his mother, Felicity Jones, is touching and familiar. When Conor reacts with anger and destroys his grandmother’s living room and the quiet moments when things are left unsaid with his mother, MacDougall realistically carries out the role. MacDougall is a young man who has himself experienced the loss of his own mother and has said in interviews to have drawn from his experience for the role. (Check out the People interview.) Liam Neeson as the voice of the yew tree with his stories for Conor does an excellent job. His voice seems to mesh well as a large old knotted tree even if the CGI of the monster’s facial expression remained rather wooden.
A Monster Calls might have benefited with more time given to the monster tree because the film lacks the magic expected for a film about a child having a fantastical friend to guide them through a difficult situation. Despite this complaint, the water colored illustrations of the yew tree’s stories are geometrically interesting and aesthetically pleasing. The pretty flowing watercolor paintings in the tree’s stories are a nice touch in contrast to the serious theme of loss and grief.
Heavy themes of grief and loss are explored through a child’s eyes with the help of his own dreams in A Monster Calls. The yew tree guides Conor through a difficult time without giving the boy easy answers. The movie faces the fear of truths about dealing with the loss of a loved one and I personally appreciated the honesty given the topic. It is a tearjerker so you might want to have a box of tissues at the ready if you cry easily. The film may be too scary or sad for some younger kids. Overall I enjoyed the movie but it’s probably not one to rewatch again just because the predictable melodramatic storyline and the lack of magical moments take the fun out of a second watch.
A Monster Calls is available on Blu-Ray and DVD right now for you to watch. Have you seen A Monster Calls yet? Did you even know it came to theaters? Doesn’t Liam Neeson sound just like an old knotted grumpy tree?! What do you think? Put your Geeky Talk in the comments below and come geek out with us.