A Monster Calls

Film, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
TIFF movies 2016

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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.

Details

Release details

Release date:
Sunday January 1 2017
Duration:
108 mins

Cast and crew

Director:
J.A. Bayona
Screenwriter:
Patrick Ness
Cast:
Liam Neeson
Felicity Jones
Sigourney Weaver