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A Monster Calls (2017)

J.A. Boyana follows up his 2007 horror, The Orphanage, and 2012 survival drama, The Impossible, with a fantasy coming of age story: A Monster Calls.  It's based on the award winning novel of the same name - a piece of work Patrick Ness completed after Siobhan Dowd sadly passed away with cancer before she was able to finish it.  Dealing with the prospect of loss and grief are the main themes of the story, and I was surprised to see it handled so well and from such a fresh perspective.  The films' story of a monster visiting a boy in the night may be fantastical, but the themes it hinge on couldn't be more real.
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Lewis MacDoudall plays Conor O'Malley, a young boy caring for his mother (Felicity Jones) who is struggling with her fight against cancer.  Faced with the prospect of having to live with his overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and bullied at school, things appear to take another dark turn when he is visited by a monster in the middle of the night.  Unclear as to whether this is a dream or not, Conor is told by the monster that it will return and tell him three stories.  Trailers can be misleading at times, but when I saw this one I just wasn't sure what to make of it.  It gave very little of the story away which is to be commended, but I remember thinking that it looked little more than a buddy film - like The Iron Giant, but with a massive talking tree.  Having seen the film itself I can sympathise though.  The novel was aimed at children, but with it's dark themes I'm not sure I would take anyone under the age of 12.  It's therefore difficult to tell who this is really aimed at.  The film centres around "a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man", and it is that coming of age story and adult themes I think make it a difficult sell for parents looking for something to show their kids.  The BFG this ain't, but it definitely left a lasting impression on me.  Anyone that has had to deal with a long term illness, have a loved one that has, or had to say goodbye to someone they love (most of us then) should find this a refreshingly realistic, and brutally honest take on that.

The film's star is undoubtedly Lewis MacDoudall as his Conor O'Malley (which I now only hear in Liam Neeson's voice) takes us on that very journey.  It's a role that demands a lot of range, and the ability to connect with humans and CGI blue screen alike.  I thought he did both brilliantly well.  The animation of the monster's three stories was gorgeous (and reminded me a little of The Tale of the Three Brothers in the penultimate Harry Potter film, 2010), and the creature's CGI was just as impressive.  The monster's initial reveal was the right side of scary, and watching it unearth from the ground, and shed the remnants of the yew tree it hides within was breathtaking.  The key to it's presence as a real character didn't lie in the photo realistic visuals, but in the sound design though.  With every step, twist, and turn the tree bark monster strains and cracks.  That was then overlayed with Liam Neeson's excellent vocals .  This no repetition of the calming tones of his Aslan (Chronicles of Narnia series).  The monster's motives, exemplified in it's ambiguous stories, are never clear, and Neeson's intimidating and unnerving voicework reflected that - even if he may have stepped in to Taken "and I will kill you" territory at times.
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The film wasn't without it's distractions.  Sigourney Weaver was an odd casting choice.  At best her British accent jolted, sounding odd coming from her mouth - at worst, she struggled to tame the accent at all.  I thought it may have been me, but my friends that saw the film also thought it looked odd having Ellen Ripley in the middle of this family drama, and it tended to distract from the brilliant performances going on around her.  Hardly her fault, and maybe that says more about the impression Alien has had on us than anything else, but she always looked out of place to me.  The story's setting also felt a little too idyllic - like an American's idea of tweedy Britain.  We don't all wear knitted jumpers in our cottages with 100 year old clocks in the living room.

A Monster Calls is a difficult film to recommend, not least because it's honest portrayal of such a dark subject is a rightfully hard watch at times, but also because I'm still unsure who it's target audience is.  As of this moment it doesn't appear to be tearing up the box office so maybe that reflects that (although it's faced stiff competition this time of year).  I'm not sure I would have gone to catch it if I hadn't been intrigued to see some of the scenes filmed round the corner from my friend's flat, but I'm really pleased I did.  It took me on a emotional journey, and it touched a chord without manipulatively trying to get it's audience to cry.  It aims for a fresh perspective on a subject that should speak to most, and did so in a brilliantly original way.  I'll be thinking about it for a long time after.


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