– The following features SPOILERS for the plot of A Monster Calls –
I’d call A Monster Calls a depressing way to start the year, except I actually screened it a couple of months ago so as far as I’m concerned, this is just leftover fumes from the Great 2016 Garbage Fire. See, sometimes being a movie critic is a fun job: Gushing about great films? That’s Fun. Examining an average film to find something interesting to talk about? Often fun. Ripping a bad movie to shreds? That’s (almost) always fun.
But other things? Not so much fun. Giving a soft pass to a mediocre movie that tried it’s best? Not a lot of fun. Struggling to remember enough of a completely forgettable film to squeeze a review out? Not even a little bit fun. But the worst? The absolute worst? When a film is trying really hard with only the best of intentions and all the right influences to say something very welcome and worth saying… and still, sucks. That’s A Monster Calls in a nutshell – an overblown, pretentious misfire that thinks it’s My Neighbor Totoro, aims for E.T. but barely manages Mac & Me (ask your parents.) And even though I’ve banked literally months worth of self-examination to solidify my opinion… hating it feel like I’m kicking a puppy. So… sorry?
The movie is about a lonely kid who’s frightened, afraid and depressed because the only person in the world who seems to understand and accept him is his mother (Felicity Jones) …who’s about to die from terminal cancer (You see what I’m up against here?). And yes, before you ask, she is in fact a saintly/artistic/free-spirited/flower-child type because that makes it easier to present her with no discernible humanity or identity beyond how she’s felt about by the kid. Either way, he’s all-but-suicidal depressed himself because when she goes, he’ll be completely alone. His dad lives in another country with his new family, other kids don’t like him, and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is an actual human being with her own life separate from him so not really a suitable replacement for The Mom-ssiah. So he keeps acting out, getting into fights and generally being a little shit which is only making things worse.
But then he starts having dreams about a giant tree monster with the voice of Liam Neeson who shows up and offers to teach him a series of life-lesson in the form of Aesop-esque stories with ironic Twilight Zone twist endings. After the last of which he’ll ask the kid to tell a story of his own and learn the moral of the movie in tandem with the audience. I’m not over-simplifying that for effect, just so we’re clear – that’s exactly as clunky and mechanical as the scenario is set-up and played-out in the actual film.
I understand you have to spell things out for kids sometimes, but it’s another thing entirely to have the tree show and just go “HERE IS THE STRUCTURE OF THE REMAINDER OF THE FILM, AFTER WHICH YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHAT THE POINT OF ALL THIS WAS!” It’d actually have been LESS clunky to just hand the kid copies of A Christmas Carol and The Neverending Story and end the goddamn movie early.
But to explain why this doesn’t work I kind of have to give away the denouement, so… consider this a second courtesy warning:
The basic routine of the film’s main arc goes like this: The kid keeps acting out in ways that nakedly invite punishment (or at least a thorough ass-kicking) and then acts surprised and moodier when he doesn’t get one. Then the tree monster shows up and tells a convoluted story (realized through avant-garde animation because that keeps the budget down and will maybe trick critics into thinking they’re watching a Guillermo del Toro movie) where the moral is always “Morality is actually very ambiguous and complicated – thus, so are people.” Since director J.A. Bayonna seems to conflate “for kids” with “subtle as a 7:00 am jackhammer,” you immediately get where this is going: It’s a movie about guilt, and the kid needs to learn to forgive himself for something… which ultimately turns out to be having begun to wish that Mom’s cancer would just hurry up and get it over with so they can both stop suffering from it.
And hey, that’s actually fairly novel! “Sometimes we all have selfish thoughts, don’t kill yourself with guilt about it” should, in theory, be a pretty novel moral for this kind of story. But aside from being too obvious and clunky in execution, it doesn’t really resonate because while the film seems to “know,” regarding storytelling mechanics, that the kid needs to work through guilt about his own selfishness. It doesn’t seem to actually grasp what that should mean beyond “we have our answer, now the story is told.” The protagonist “get’s over” wanting to die himself because he briefly wished for his mother to die, but we don’t see any actual development come of this in terms of performance or (onscreen) narrative.
The character (and by extension the film itself) don’t even allow for their view of the mom to evolve at all. Instead, the final moments double down on magic realism and implications of fate and supernaturalism that only serve to cement the sense that she only ever existed in life (or death) as an extension of the kid hero. Which is almost like leaping from a moral of “One selfish though doesn’t mean you’re damned” to “Your self-involvement is correct and should go utterly unexamined!” which feels a lot like the sort of thing that people making a twee “children’s film” more likely to be enjoyed by wistful adults would see as a less narratively-questionable lesson than anybody else.
On top of which, the whole production (however handsome-looking in spots) feels fake and inert. Bayonna is a good technician, but just as with his unbelievably terrible disaster movie The Impossible, he seems continually unable to create recognizable humanity. He “knows” (seemingly from careful observation of other, better movies) what a “sad” scene is supposed to look like, how a “stolen moment of happiness” should be lit, what angles convey fear, grief or paranoia… but there’s not an ounce of discernible life inside it. Does he, here and there, manage to arrange the lines, beats, and music cues into the correct equation for producing some tears? Yes – but chopping up a fucking onion can do that! The main takeaway is that he’s pretty good integrating big CGI monsters into a scene, so I guess Jurassic World 2 will at least look decent.
A Monster Calls is a bad movie doing an uncanny impression of a good one… but it wears off quick. This is one call you don’t need to answer.