Liam Neeson as a giant tree monster is what got me excited about A Monster Calls. I’m not being funny, I really think he’s perfect for the role and I was curious to see how he would take it on. I saw a YouTube video a few months ago of him reading the first chapter or so of the book the film was based on, and the way he narrated and spoke for different characters gave me chills. His voice is deep and gruff, but also very soothing and comforting. I feel safe listening to him, but he still sounds like he could be scary if he wanted to. I feel weird writing about the sound of a man’s voice, but that’s what people do nowadays. And, of course, I wouldn’t be writing about it if it wasn’t exactly what went through my head while watching the film. That safe but scary tone is exactly what the character of the monster was like, and that’s why Liam Neeson seemed so fitting.
The giant, imposing creature that Neeson plays is rough and messy in appearance. He moves slowly and with each step the ground shakes. As he bends over or extends his arm, you hear the bending of his branches and the cracking of his bark. The monster itself—the look and the feel of it—was incredibly satisfying for a lot of reasons. The CGI was impressively lifelike, and the sound effects I mentioned brought the character to life in an unexpected way. They’re subtle, but they add an incredible amount of realism to it that many people probably won’t even think about.
The story was kind of what I thought it would be like, but kind of different from what I expected. There are aspects of the boy, Conor’s, life that I didn’t expect to see, but they all pretty much worked for me. I’ve never read the book and I knew virtually nothing about the actual plot before seeing it, so I there was an adventure to be had. I was able to see plot points unfold as the story progressed, and most of it was very interesting and even quite moving by the end.
Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, and Toby Kebbell all play important figures in Conor’s life that play a part in the lesson he has to learn. All three are at the top of their game, and I believed every heartfelt moment between them and the boy. Toby Kebbell is Conor’s father who lives in Los Angeles and comes to visit him when his mother is in the hospital. His time in the film is pretty minimal, but I bought him as a caring and concerned father. Felicity Jones is Conor’s sick mother, and she did very well in the more emotional scenes. I felt like she and Lewis MacDougall (Conor) likely had great chemistry off-screen, which translated to excellent performances in the film. Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother character that Conor goes to stay with was the standout live-action performance (excluding Liam Neeson) to me. Her character arc from stern and threatening old lady to sweet, understanding grandma was particularly touching, and Weaver’s acting was Oscar-worthy.
There is one thing I expected this film to stay away from based on what I had heard from critics and audiences of earlier screenings, and that’s a specific formula. Many films based on childrens’ books about a boy or a girl overcoming a struggle in their life has a very strict pattern that has become a cliché and should not have been a part of A Monster Calls. I thought it would all be different and completely original, which it is for the latter half, but the first act of the film is inexcusably formulaic. Conor is bullied at school for always being off in his own world, he has to stay with an adult that has too many rules, and the authority figures in his life tell him to get over his problems. There are aspects of that formula that belong in the story because sometimes they’re just a part of life, but the first act of the film is blatant in its tropes and it came off as pretty dumb to me.
That’s why I was very happy when the story turned itself around and started feeling fresh like I had hoped. The moral of the film is important, but it’s also brave and unusual for this type of film. The monster tells Conor stories to help him get through his grief (the animation used to depict these tales is stylistic and gorgeous), and that’s exactly what I admire so much about it. He helps him to get through the grief, not over it. “Stories don’t always have happy endings”, the monster says. One of the biggest points the film is trying to get across is that sometimes the truth hurts, and since there’s no way to change the truth we just have to learn to accept it.
— Camden McDonald