A Monster Calls

Film, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(8user reviews)
TIFF movies 2016

Young actor Lewis MacDougall impresses in JA Bayona's imaginative but overly sentimental fantasy tale about a child dealing with the horrors of real life

Or 'Pan's Labyrinth 2: The Oscar Years'. When Spanish filmmaker JA Bayona's debut 'The Orphanage' was released back in 2007, many proclaimed him the rightful heir to Guillermo del Toro: creepy and inventive, the film bore a notable debt to the Mexican maestro's chilly masterpiece of wartime horror, 'The Devil's Backbone'. Bayona's follow-up, the disaster movie 'The Impossible', may have quieted those voices temporarily, but expect them to rise again, full-throated, when 'A Monster Calls' arrives in cinemas. Adapted by author Patrick Ness from his dour, dreamlike not-quite-kids'-book about an imaginative boy who conjures a writhing, ent-like tree-monster to help him deal with his mother's worsening cancer, this ambitious, often awkward, intermittently striking fairytale-horror-cum-disease-drama feels like the movie Del Toro would produce if he was suddenly struck down with Oscar fever.

13-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is finding life a struggle: his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is dying by degrees, his grandma (a miscast Sigourney Weaver) is brittle and loveless and his dad (Toby Kebbell) only makes the trip back from America when it suits him. So when a 40-foot monster (granite-voiced by Liam Neeson) tears itself out of a nearby yew tree and comes rampaging into Connor's life, he's glad of the distraction. But why has the beast come? To steal him away? To save his mum? Or just to tell him a series of prettily animated fairy stories?

It's hard to know who the audience might be for 'A Monster Calls': too scary and bleak for kids, it'll likely prove too whimsical and meandering for most grown-ups. Bayona shot the film in Lancashire - notably in the gloriously named mill town of Ramsbottom, north of Manchester - but that landscape's industrial wildness is rarely reflected in the film itself. And it doesn't help that the town's inhabitants  - even the scruffy ruffians who gang up on Connor at school - all speak like they've just left stage school. 

But on the rare occasions that the film loosens up, it springs to life: MacDougall is a charismatic lead, and when he's not tied to the script – as in a pair of wild, full-throated scenes of wilful destruction – he lifts the entire film. The climax is unexpectedly powerful, with a genuinely sharp, emotionally bracing sting in the tale (a pity, though, that Bayona lets the sentimental aftermath run on as long as he does). The result is strange and memorable, but frustratingly over-polite. There's a gripping, dark, truly monstrous film lurking in here somewhere, but Bayona seems hell-bent on keeping it at bay.

Release details

Release date:
Sunday January 1 2017
108 mins

Cast and crew

J.A. Bayona
Patrick Ness
Liam Neeson
Felicity Jones
Sigourney Weaver

Average User Rating

3.8 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:2
  • 4 star:4
  • 3 star:1
  • 2 star:0
  • 1 star:1
1 person listening

I didn't know what this film was about before seeing it, only that it had a tree monster in it.

It is the story of a young boy who is being bullied at school.  He lives with his mother, who is seriously ill with cancer.  The monster comes to the boy's house, telling him that he is going to tell him 3 stories over the coming nights and after that, the boy will tell him his.  The boy is very reluctant at first, but the monster proceeds anyway.  The stories are unusual in that the conclusion you draw at the end of each turns out to be wrong after the monster explains more background to it. 

It is a very emotional story with the boy being bullied whilst his mother is so ill. I won't give away the ending, but it was good that the actual film didn't follow the storyline that you could have guessed right from the beginning as a lot of stories do.

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A Monster Calls hits all the right notes - a dark fantasy film with the standard rule of three, a young protagonist who befriends an ancient creature which he hopes will save him from real life, a tragedy looming in the distance and gorgeous, gorgeous animation, reminiscent of the tale of the three brothers from Harry Potter.

This is by no means a bad film. It's beautifully produced, clean, and haunting in all the right ways. Yet, there's something that feels just a little bit off about it. Is it that I can't for some reason see Liam Neeson as the yule tree? Or is it that I love Sigourney Weaver to death but there's something off putting about her character and accent? 

A Monster Calls is a modern fairy tale that attempts to appeal to both adults and children, but somehow finds itself a tad confused about the exact tone it should be taking, never quite appealing 100% to either audience. Felicity Jones gives a gut wrenching performance as a dying mother, but somehow, so much of the film manages to lose its emotional edge in its construction that one feels almost angry that you know she'll make you cry at the end. 

I can't decide if I liked this film or not to be honest. There's a great message behind all of the monsters and the grieving, but the film somehow fizzles out towards the end and relies too much on Jones to give it a climactic ending. A lot of style and a degree of substance, but requires some way to go still in terms of really leaving a lasting impact. 

A bittersweet tale. I'd been looking forward to seeing this film after a mediocre December in cinemas. J. A. Bayona's films never disappoint me (although he never surpassed his first "The Orphanage"). With "A Monster Calls", I felt that the film's strength rely on its smooth storytelling feel. The story starts with a tone of Dickensian teenage adventure but as the narrative unfolds, it begins to address serious current real-life issues, both bluntly (cancer, mother-child attachment, bullying) and through its more subtle symbolism (the environment). Because of the heavy themes in the film, I felt that young children might leave the cinema feeling a bit sad, but then again, this is probably a self-conscious decision aimed at representing the pressures and challenges of life that children and adults alike have to face. Technically the film is well produced, ambitious but safe. I really enjoyed this film and think it deserves to be watched.


Powerful story!

This film is sad but beautiful. 

It shows us how children deal with grief and how difficult it is for them to talk about their feelings and how they end up closing down and suffer in silence.

I think it was a brilliant film but heads-up because you will cry…but sometimes we need to understand the pain to help us find the light.  

I saw this last night as part of The London Film Festival. I was an invited guest ( Thank you Edwardian Hotels ) In truth I am not sure its the sort of film that I would have paid to see. However,  I found it both challenging and richly rewarding. 

Its the story of a kid struggling with the gradual decline and death of his mother from cancer.

He has other challenges to face - including recurring surreal nightmares that help shape and frame his thinking.

Not the theme of normal cinematic entertainment. I found it thought-provoking , distressing and at moments uncomfortably amusing.

There is a monster in this film, and its not the one voiced by Liam Neeson. 

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