Movie Review: 'A Monster Calls'
I’ll tell you a story—the story of a boy who had to grow up too fast and who met a monster, a monster with a powerful wisdom.
It’s the story of A Monster Calls, a wondrous movie that puts us in the life of Conor, a boy on the edge of being a teenager whose mother is dying of cancer and who can’t accept that he can’t control what’s happening. Conor feels mostly invisible to the world, is abused by the few classmates who can see him, and escapes into the fantasy world of his intricate drawings--drawings of creatures and horrors and heroes and victories.
And then, one night, the monster comes.
It grows from a yew tree overlooking Conor’s house, and towers over everything around them. But this monster hasn’t come to torment Conor, or to vanquish his enemies, or to do anything else we might imagine a monster doing. This monster has come to tell Conor three tales. And then, when he’s finished, Conor must tell him his own tale, with his own truth.
These seem like standard fairy tales, though they’re anything but. The monster’s stories are difficult to grasp, never turning out the way we expect and showing the messiness and confusion of life and how it frustrates, and the pettiness of people and how little sense they make when they act. Conor is already an angry boy: angry at what is happening to his mother, angry at being bullied, angry at his absent father, angry at being forced to live with his grandmother as his mother undergoes treatment, angry at having no control. And these stories, seemingly, don’t help, doing more to confuse Conor than to lead him to any sort of understanding. At least, that’s how it seems.
While much of the movie is live action, when the monster tells his tales, we enter a gorgeous, lush world of animation, combining what appear to be watercolors and charcoal drawings with computer graphics to take us to a world unlike any we regularly see in movies today. They are the highlight of an already visually stunning movie, and bring the monster’s stories to life in thrilling ways. Still, the feelings in the stories, and throughout A Monster Calls, are difficult and challenge us in ways we might not like and in ways that, at first, might not make sense.
And if it wasn’t clear already, this isn’t the sort of story we can expect to wrap up in a nice, neat bow. That’s not how life is. The monster has come to help, that much is true, but of course not in the way we or Conor expect, and Conor’s real understanding comes in discovering some harsh realities that the rest of us could learn from, too. Our fairy tales and our fables are often too easy, and the real story rarely ends cleanly or sensibly.