Around Christmas time, you expect cheery films about the season to be released, something that’ll warm your heart. But because 2016 wasn’t the greatest year ever, it decided to end the year with what I will dub the grief trilogy. Between Christmas and mid-January, three films about grief were released. The first one was Collateral Beauty and the last one was Manchester by the Sea. I will tackle those films in the coming weeks but first I’ll tackle the one that was released in the middle and like so many middle children, was forgotten in the attention the other two got. Yes, we’re talking about A Monster Calls.
Conor’s (Lewis MacDougall, Pan) life is going badly as he is being bullied in school as well as coping with the fact his mum (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything) has cancer. However things get even worse as in the middle of the night a tree (Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List) visits him and tells him that he will tell him three stories before Conor must tell him one back.
What I really appreciate about this film is that despite its dark subject material, the film is mainly aimed at children, though older ones. I have also campaigned to have darker films for kids as I’ve always believed that they can actually help children learn about the worst aspects of the world in a safe environment and how they should deal with it. That’s why it’s incredibly smart to put a young lad front and centre of this film, even if it does mean putting an incredibly heavy film on the shoulders of a young actor with not much experience. This is a film that probably won’t entertain, but it will show kids who watch what grief is, how you deal with it and that it’s not a terrible thing. Well, if kids actually watched the film. Probably watched more by people like me who think kids should watch it, like Stranger Things.
And that gamble I mentioned by putting such a heavy film on such a young actor’s shoulders? Boy did that pay off because Lewis MacDougall is a star in the making. He always feels like a real kid, you’d be amazed how many films fail at that front, and he also perfectly displays his feelings for what is happening around him. He’s depressed constantly and you can feel him try to cling to any hope he can, though his voice usually gives away that he knows it is more hope than expectation. It’s such a mature performance from such a young performer and I hope he gets more meaty roles like this, because it’s obvious that he excels in it.
Obviously we have to talk about the monster from the title, the one who is a yew tree that comes in the night. This is the fantastical element which will hopefully bring in the kids, the how the Narnia style advertising made kids to watch the nut punch of an emotional punch that was Bridge To Terabithia. And it’s done perfectly. It takes a little while to get used, when the tree says he’s going to tell Conor three stories it does get a smirk because of how ridiculous it sounds, but the strong sound design which gives the impressive CGI animation real weight when he appears attached to the perfect casting of Liam Neeson as the voice makes him feel like a gruff mentor type. Except that he’s a tree and that he’s telling stories.
And about those stories. They are told in this unique watercolour animation style and they are absolutely gorgeous. They are seriously stunning and quite honestly I hope that someone will make an entire animated film out of this style now and if someone already has, point me to it now. The animations are so good that when the third story happens and it doesn’t use that style, you end up being a bit pissed off! They aren’t just gorgeous eye candy either, the stories are very deep short films really about the complexity of human beings, about how seemingly good people will do the most evil things and that bad people may not always be as bad as they first appear. The film does point out the complexity, it was aimed at youngsters after all, but the parallels to the main plot are left for Conor to work out for himself. And because of all of this, A Monster Calls is capable of an incredible emotional punch towards the end.
Of course A Monster Calls isn’t perfect and it lies in one of my hosted hated clichés school bullies. It’s bad enough they are the prototypical bullies you see in every film expect they are a bit posher than usual, but they are extra evil and even bring their mum’s cancer into their jibes. Admittedly, they do contribute to the plot later on but it doesn’t make up for their paper thin characterisation. What makes this really irk is that the film makes a key point of how people are complex and not everyone is as they seem, but then you have these bullies are just nasty people and that’s that.
But despite that, A Monster Calls is a brilliant take on the grief of a child as they watch their mother battle against cancer. It gets everything about this right, the anger, the anguish, the inability to accept the horror that is happening. And by taking us through this journey with Conor and his mum, it makes us feel those emotions too before taking us through one of the toughest, most tear inducing yet revelatory scenes of the year so far. Show this to your kids I implore, it’s important. Though their sobs may be even tougher than listening to Let It Go for the 5,383,282th time.