IT’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie with a moral, and now here’s A Monster Calls with three more stories with morals wrapped around the live-action animated offering directed by J.A. Bayona (of (The Impossible, The Orphanage fame).
But the movie belongs to child actor Lewis MacDougall (Pan, 2015) whose portrayal of a boy, Conor O’Malley, facing the imminent death of a parent is just outstanding. The Scottish actor has taken on the emotional roller-coaster role with admirable aplomb, for his only second feature film appearance.
Conor, 12 years old, living with his divorced cancer-stricken mum, has not just to face up to her imminent death but that of being bullied at school and a father (Toby Kebbell) who has no space for him in his new life. To top that all is a grandma (Sigourney Weaver) who is also finding it hard to comfort the boy as her daughter lingers at death’s bed.
A budding artist, Conor draws upon a fantastical imagination and has a nightmare at precisely 12.07am, these past nights. One night, at precisely the same time, something happens. A huge yew tree, in a churchyard, comes awake, rips itself from the ground, takes on a hulkish man shape and blunders over the hills towards Conor’s home.
The monster tree has three stories for the boy, after which the child must tell his own story. “What story?” demands the child, with no fear at this thing before him.
My, that tree’s voice is gravelly rich and emotes so well. Kudos to actor Liam Neeson for being able to imbue an animated tree with such feelings.
Production notes reveal that Bayona decided to build an animatronic on-set monster, with moving parts while the special effects team led by Pau Costa (“The Revenant”) created the digital components of the monster. Bayona went down this path because he felt people were getting tired with CGI creatures. Well, given Pete and his dragon and Sophie with her Big Friendly Giant, this monster tree is decidedly different, with those glowing red eyes!
Based on a short story by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, the monster “harks back to an English legend called ‘The Green Man.’ He’s sort of the landscape personified, rising up to tell stories. He comes from, and is, a great big, powerful force,” says Ness in the notes.
So, a child is trying to grieve, a monster tree comes to help him, and we get three extra stories, the kind that are seldom told in cinema today.
The monster tree’s tales are vividly portrayed through stop-motion effects and watercolor animation. One has to do with a queen-witch who has a heart but is exiled, and a prince who has done an evil deed but becomes a good king. Another is about a pastor who first damns an apothecary, then pleads with him to save his children’s lives. The moral behind them are that bad things happen to good people, and sometimes unlikable people do good things.
The last begins with, “There was once an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen”, and Conor takes on his biggest bully at school.
The last story has to do with Conor’s nightmare. He has to face up to death. One scene shows Conor’s mum seeing, gasp!, the monster too! She used to draw them as a child herself. The witching hour draws near with revelatory timing.
Is the monster a metaphor? Perhaps, but it’s a treat to be able to discuss the dramatic narrative of an animation movie, although the drama feels too dark for children, despite the PG13 rating.
Some adults will be moved to tears, while children might find the parables from the monster tree a bit difficult to understand. As you leave the hall, with the orchestral music of Fernando Velázquez, you realise what a well-made contemporary fairytale is all about.