Children’s movies are, if we’re being perfectly honest, not always made for children. A lot of the time these films are made for and by adults who need kids to either A) be distracted, or B) buy something. And as such, we tend to see a fair amount of desperation in the genre, as if the filmmakers are stressed out babysitters waving adorable puppets in front of a child’s face and yelling, “Are the chipmunks doing it for you? Do you want them to sing Lady Gaga?! Please, give me your parents’ money and let me go!”
But movies like A Monster Calls are rare and beautiful things. J.A. Bayona’s film, based on the novel by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), tells captivating tales about monsters, evil queens, and invisible men, and there is absolutely no pandering to be found. The beast is just a little too scary to be marketable and the fascinating stories sometimes dissatisfy, not because they are bad stories but because what you want to hear and what you need to hear are often – as kids sometimes learn too late – entirely different things. The priority isn’t to make the audience happy, although in the end, they will be that too; what matters is that they are made to feel whole.
Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, a boy on the cusp of manhood, clinging to childhood. He has nightmares about his mother, played by Felicity Jones, falling into a sinkhole and disappearing forever. His mother has cancer. Conor is looking for hope.
Hope arrives in a most unlikely form: a gargantuan tree monster with fire in its branches, voiced by Liam Neeson. The Monster crushes everything in its path and announces his intentions: he will tell Conor three stories, and when he is done, Conor will tell the fourth story. Conor will tell his nightmare. Conor, being a reasonable child, finds the whole idea preposterous, but faced with few other options he agrees to the arrangement, and so it goes that between his mother’s perilous medical treatments, through his father’s awkward visits, and in the midst of his grandmother’s awful house, The Monster comes, and his tales are told.
They are fancy tales, magical tales, creepy tales and strange besides. They are animated stylishly, grimly, and lovingly. And like many of those tales for children we spoke about at the beginning of the review, they distract Conor for a few precious moments out of his particularly rough days. But when they are done, they are so contrary to the platitudes he expected to hear that he can’t help but learn something from them, and what he learns isn’t always all that pleasant.
It would be despicable to give away all the secrets of A Monster Calls, because although it is not a film of many gnarled twists, it is one that should be experienced as personally as possible. Telling someone about your breakthrough therapy session is nothing compared to going through therapy yourself and earning that moment of genuine clarity, and – speaking from personal experience – A Monster Calls genuinely feels like two years of quality therapy tucked into less than two hours. The moments of catharsis are overwhelming, and they matter. This movie earns tears of sadness and understanding and love.
A Monster Calls is not a film that everyone will want to see, because movies about death often do a very poor job of keeping our minds off of unpleasant topics, like death. Ironically that’s why they are so necessary. Few films about the end of a life and the grieving process, which frequently starts beforehand, qualify as a hoot-and-a-half. And that’s as it should be. A Monster Calls takes you by the hand and walks you through life’s most arduous moments, and tells you what, years after the fact, you’ll wish someone had told you before fate took away someone you loved. Giving this film to a person who has yet to experience tragedy for themselves is arming them against future strife. I don’t just recommend J.A. Bayona’s movie, I deem it necessary. A Monster Calls is an uncanny film for children and an empowering motion picture for audiences of all ages.
Thirteen Must-See Films at TIFF 2016:
Top Photo: Focus Features
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.