This isn’t a film that everyone will naturally flock to, but they should. It is dark and sad, but also magical. It dares to be honest amidst its subterfuge of humor and entertainment. It takes its time, so much so you aren’t even sure it is working for a long while… and then it just does. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end, but somehow you were thankful for that. This is a complex one… and one most folks are probably going to miss. It should have been released at a different time of the year. By releasing now, it is getting buried by all the other films running and unlikely to receive the recognition it should through awards season.
So, why, you ask, should you put yourself through a dark movie when all you’re looking to do is escape? Because, for all its weight, it doesn’t cling to you in a bad way to bring you down. It brings you to the other side of the emotions leaving it all bitter-sweet but completely acceptable. Basically, it earns its moments, all of them, and it leaves you more whole at the end for that.
The tale is told entirely, and bravely, through the eyes of the young Lewis MacDougall (Pan). It is one of the best conceits of the film. We only know what he knows, though there are, by necessity, a few visual points of view that aren’t his.
His mother is embodied by Felicty Jones (Rogue One), who brings on a powerful performance with little screen time. Toby Kebbell (Warcraft) has a subtle job that implies much as his father, but we are left wondering about him and his actions as much as his son is; given MacDougall’s point of view, that is entirely fair. Even Sigourney Weaver’s (Chappie) grandmother does much with little screen time, and little explanation. Sadly, her accent wavers, but her presence and emotions are solid.
And then there is Liam Neeson (Taken 3) as the gravelly voiced monster. It may not be him on screen, but the voice carries a performance that rides a difficult line between terrifying and humorous.
The overall combination of story telling and Neeson’s monster has echos of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Bridge to Terebithia, The Spiderwick Chronicles, or a much more twisted The BFG, if the BFG himself was more of Freudian analyst than a sweet sidekick. Monster Calls is still its own unique film, but there aren’t many movies that allow children to be the true leads of their stories and also remain truthful. It is in rarefied and good company.
Director Bayona (The Impossible) brings an incredible control to the movie. He allows for humanity without giving in to any one side or emotion. By bringing the audience along the high-wire above and through the middle of the action, he allows us to experience it all without cheapening the moments.
A good part of the success of this film is also down to the script. Writer Ness adapted his own challenging book as his first film script, bringing to it the same sensibility he also brought to the new Doctor Who spin-off, Class; treating young adults as people rather than children.
There were two niggling issues for me with this film. They alone brought it from near perfection to just really good. First, the animation near the end was just a little off… and, unfortunately, it was at a critical moment so it really hit me in the face. And second, the music over the credits was disturbingly upbeat like the film was trying to wash the sense of the film away or apologize for the journey. I didn’t want either from the filmmakers. I wanted to hang onto the sense of the world the final scenes left me with a bit longer.
Those small aspects aside, make time for this film, if not now, later. It is rather extraordinary. I also imagine it will offer different connections when rewatching it depending on where you are in your life, making it even more intriguing to me, and, I hope, others.