When my father first died I didn't feel sad--I just felt empty. Grief is funny like that. It doesn't hit you all at once, it ebbs and flows like the tides on the beach. Once I had time to process what had happened, the true mourning began. I was thirty-years-old when my dad passed away. I was much more intimate with the darker aspects of life. It was extremely hard for me still, and I wonder...how would a child handle the death of a parent? In J.A. Bayona's fantasy/drama A Monster Calls, we get to experience that viewpoint fully, warts and all.
Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a young child who is trying to cope with his mother's (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. On top of that, he is bullied at school and he also has to deal with his absentee father (Toby Kebbell) and stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). One night he is visited by a giant imposing tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who regales him with fantastical tales and fables. These stories are animated with a beautiful hybrid of watercolor impressionism style art and cell-shaded CGI. They are gorgeously rendered and captivating to watch unfold. There is a heavy element of magical realism present in the film and it's interwoven into the real life drama perfectly. It does take a bit for the film to find its tone, but it gels together nicely by the halfway point.
What this movies does well is illustrate the concept of moral ambiguity and coping mechanisms. The stories that the monster tells don't have clear cut good and evil characters, and honestly I have never seen this concept explored so deeply in a film meant for children. The real truth isn't always what you want to hear, and many times people would rather believe a beautiful lie. Every character that surrounds Conor is trying to shield him from the harsh realities of life, but instead of protecting him they are making him frustrated and confused. Anyone who has ever had to deal with a long term illness of a family member will be able to empathize with a lot of the ideas that are touched on in A Monster Calls.
The look of the film is wonderful and the CGI used for the monster is outstanding. It works so well because they made everything stylized to compliment it though the "reality" parts of the film are filmed much more straightforward. There are times when the two sides meet and it's amazing to see them mesh together. J.A. Bayona directed a horror film called The Orphanage that had some very dark imagery and I see his (toned down) macabre touches in the fantasy aspects here as well. Fernando Velázquez provided a great score as well though it's mostly in the background as ambient mood enhancer.
This is quite the heavy film and I was not prepared for how emotional it ended up being. MacDougall puts in a fantastic performance as Conor and I truly felt sad for his plight. Like in real life though, even if everything doesn't turn out like he wanted, he did learn that it's okay to have conflicting feelings about terrible situations and that eventually, life does go on.