Ingenious visuals, catastrophic emotions weave through ‘A Monster Calls’

Images courtesy Focus Features.

With inventive animation sequences and thoughtful shots in support of a potent story, A Monster Calls is what moviemaking is all about.

The film opens with young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) having a nightmare, and it’s easy to see why he’s losing sleep. His mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer, and he can’t escape his creepy school bully, Harry (James Melville). Further, he must suffer through his tense relationships with his up-tight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and absentee father (Toby Kebbell), who are drawn out to deal with his mother’s deteriorating condition. One night, he animates the centuries-old yew tree he can see from his bedroom window into a monster (Liam Neeson). The monster tells O’Malley that he will return every night and tell three stories, and on the fourth night, O’Malley must tell him his nightmare.

The big sell with A Monster Calls was its visuals, and it delivers. Oh, how it delivers. A frequent observation stemming from last summer’s expensive, consistently bland visual effects was that, in a world where animators can do almost anything, it’s almost impossible to stand out. This movie stands out in a big way.

When the audience doesn’t appreciate all the metaphors you put in your movie.

The highlight is the monster’s stories. Whenever he begins to spin a yarn, the movie drops into an abstract animated sequence. The first time I saw something like this was the Three Brothers story from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a few years ago, and I go in for them every time. These types of sequences offer a free, memorable segment to reinforce a film’s visual themes. A Monster Calls uses these opportunities brilliantly, and they are brilliant on their own, with swirling watercolors melding into animated sequences and eventually invading the real world.

The monster’s own design is just as thoughtful. As a tree, he’s constantly changing shape to reflect his emotions or serve the shot composition. His eyes and cracks flare bright red when he gets angry, making him remarkably expressive.  

The art isn’t just there to be admired. It’s there to tell a story, and what a story it tells. A Monster Calls is a coming-of-age character study, and as beautiful as it is, the movie’s emotional weight is couched in its extremely strong characters. As the film hacks deeper into O’Malley’s complex emotions, it hammers home exactly how conflicted he is and how much he doesn’t want to admit to himself. It goes to some dark places that make you view the character very differently, and that’s the point.

The narratives and animation sequences feed into each other beautifully, with several verbal and visual motifs from the stories bleeding into the real world. While this is happening, the animation becomes more and more realistic, until eventually O’Malley’s nightmare is expressed in live-action without any animation at all. It creates a broad but tight narrative, with all the scenes holding each other up. The movie is brilliantly crafted such that it works as a puzzle that doesn’t reveal the full picture until the end, but also as a linear narrative with an easy entry point for the audience.

A Monster Calls reinforces its themes so strongly that it almost becomes a weakness. Subtlety is a virtue in movies like this with a clear message, but it’s not as big a problem here as it could be because that message isn’t a moral one. It’s also kind of refreshing to see a movie so eager to help viewers decode it.

Sigourney Weaver is so fucking great. A lot of her recent higher-profile roles were pranks based on her fame as the sci-fi queen — you forget that she’s a fantastic actor. It’s great to see her back in a real role disappearing into a new character.

This is where the film gets a little dubious. It’s aimed squarely at a younger audience with its heavy-handedness and pacing that’s just a touch too brisk, but I’m not sure I’d want to take my kid to see this. The moral of the story — the moral it makes inescapably clear — is that people are complicated and inconsistent and kind of suck, and we rarely get anything resembling justice because of it. This lesson is not only unequivocally bleak, but also something some people never learn. I’d definitely want some of the more utopian adults in my life to see this movie, but it’s tough to figure at what age a child would be ready for it.

But I’m 24 and bitterly jaded, and I wasn’t ready for this movie. Maybe no one would be.

Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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