DIR: J.A. Bayona • WRI: Patrick Ness • PRO: Belén Atienza • DOP: Oscar Faura • ED: Jaume Martí, Bernat Vilaplana • DES: Eugenio Caballero • MUS: Fernando Velázquez • CAST: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougal
When a director emerges right out of the gate with a near-masterpiece, the problem is that his/her fans expect that the filmmaker’s later output will be of a similar calibre. In 2007, J.A. Bayona’s debut The Orphanage hit theatre screens. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, the film is a chilling and unforgettable tale which revitalised the ghost story. However, this magnificent achievement, which is up there with the best of gothic cinema, only makes his latest, A Monster Calls, pale in comparison. Although the latter is splendidly directed by the Spaniard, its story is too familiar and simplistic to last the test of time like his first feature.
Lewis MacDougall stars in A Monster Calls as Conor, a young boy whose single mother (Felicity Jones) is terminally ill. While dealing with the situation, as well as school bullies and inter-familial strife, the child is visited by a gruff tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). The creature tells Conor three tales which may hold some relevance in regards to what the boy is going through.
The book of the same name on which the film is based, written by Patrick Ness (who also adapted the script), is renowned for its illustration of the stories The Monster tells Conor. The moments in Bayona’s film where the audience escapes the grim reality of its protagonist’s world through these immersive Aesop’s Fables-like vignettes are gorgeous. The director shifts from real-life into animation and the sequences look legitimately like watercolours splashed into life on-screen.
Bayona is also great at action sequences. Although these are admittedly few and far between within the movie, there are moments where the director gets to capitalise on his skill. When The Monster first tears away from his roots binding him to the ground and approaches the bedroom window of Conor, there is a weight to the proceedings. Bayona builds dread, concealing the tree from the viewer, and emphasises, through focusing on the ground shaking or signs being destroyed, exactly how hulking the giant monster truly is.
However, Ness’ screenplay is not complex enough. Although every actor gives it there all, particularly Toby Kebbell as Conor’s estranged father, each character’s whole personality can be summed-up in one sentence – angelic dying mother, warm but irresponsible father, stern grandmother with a heart of gold, mean bully. One could argue that in famous fairy-tales, the characters are often equally as basic. Yet, Ness makes a point to mention that the moral of The Monster’s first story is that no one is simply good or evil. This message, then, clashes with the movie’s depiction of Conor’s mother or his bully.
Centring upon a character who retreats into a fantasy world as a means of avoiding his tragic every-day surroundings, A Monster Calls evokes memories of Pan’s Labyrinth. However, while Del Toro’s film showcased a period of history rarely seen in cinema and featured an over-abundance of unforgettable visuals, Bayona’s doesn’t do enough to truly differentiate itself from similar movies released this year like The B.F.G or Pete’s Dragon. It is certainly emotional and looks beautiful but there is very little that stays with the viewer days after watching.
12A (See IFCO for details)
A Monster Calls is released 6th January 2017