FILM SUFFERS BLURRED FOCUS
Film Review by Fiore
I’m not a fan of films designed solely to tug at the heart strings. I find cheap sentimentality disturbing. A MONSTER CALLS centers around this theme. Siobhan Dowd originally wrote the tale, but died before it was finished. Patrick Ness completed the work, and wrote this screenplay version. Already it sounds like leaching off the dead. At least when Max Allen Collins finishes Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, it was first under the guidance and tutelage of Spillane and later, with his blessings.
A MONSTER CALLS follows the template set in so many children’s novels. The concept is to help a child deal with grief. This grief comes in many forms: the loss of a friend or pet; bullying at school; moving to a new location; the death of a parent; or the horror of having two mommies instead of a normal family unit. The template first establishes the dilemma, perceived or actual, and then proceeds to relate an anecdote revealing how the child is special, regardless of environment or situation, and that all lifestyles and manners are viable. There is also a moral, though none are as concrete as Aesop’s Fables.
In A MONSTER CALLS, the premise is the death of a parent. Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, a socially awkward middle school boy who is suffering through the disintegration of his family, and the death of his mother, slowly to cancer. Immediately, you can tell this is the type of film that will not lift your spirits or compensate for an incredibly hard week at work. Conor’s mom and dad are divorced. His father has moved to another country and remarried, starting a new family that Conor is not interested in being a part of. His mother, played by Felicity Jones, is dying of cancer. Though she remains optimistic, the medications continually fail, despite their increased strength. Between the problems at home and school, and his mother’s imminent death, Conor spirals out of control, refusing to admit the truths and realities of his life. To compound his traumas, his grandmother, played by Sigourney Weaver, is King Kong to his Godzilla. They are constantly at odds, and just don’t like each other.
Amidst all this emotional distress, Liam Neeson appears, in voice-over only, as a monster, culled from the ages of a massive Yew tree. The monster is not set on Conor’s destruction – that would truly be a horror film – but rather guiding the boy to see life as it is and force him to confront inalienable truths surrounding his current state of existence.
While these are all noble themes, they are redundant from various other stories. These concepts may help small children cope with life’s hurdles, but their presentation is certainly not on a child’s level. A MONSTER CALLS is more of an instructional film for parents and relatives to ensure they are handling these types of situations in the prescribed manner of current psychological thought. The one disturbing message brought out in the film is the uselessness of punishment. When Conor rebels against his circumstances, often in violent manner, he expects to be punished; but though he is caught, no one is willing to enforce civility. Excuses, and the general despising of corporal punishment are tantamount. Due to his circumstances, his behavior is acceptable. This was the ideology of the 1970’s which produced an entire generation of convenient morality. The decision is more harmful to Conor as it causes him to believe his actions have no consequences, which sounds quite like the immature behavior of rioters and protestors currently disrupting society.
KEY SCENES TO LOOK FOR:
1. The emergence of the monster
2. The scrapbook
The presence of the monster, and the special effects (SFX) used to bring the tree beast to life, are what sets A MONSTER CALLS apart. Production Designer Eugenio Caballero provides powerful visualization for Neeson’s chorused echo- chambered voice. The CGI is impressive and cinematography of Oscar Faura, alternating from long shots to extreme close-ups, allows the viewer to escape in the film’s fantasy.
Ness’ script becomes problematic when the monster insists on telling three stories. Except for the first, the tales are not fables with morals, but rather instructions for destructive behavior. Master Po never taught Caine the concepts of being a Shaolin monk by telling him to destroy everyone in his life.
The monster’s three tales must be followed by Conor telling his own personal truth. Whoever set up these rules of engagement was on an amazing herbal high. The concept is ludicrous and detracts from the fantasy -reality conflict of the film.
One outstanding feature of the film is the excellent orchestration by Fernando Velazque. The soundtrack easily segues from rousing to pensive. It serves well as listening ambiance. However, at times, the soundtrack is so prominent, the monster’s narration is muddled. The audio mix is off and not well balanced.
A MONSTER CALLS is akin to its star; “a boy too old to be a child and too young to be a man.” It is bordering on the edge of being a child’s movie, tailored for those suffering the loss of a parent to disease, and an adult fantasy. Somewhere in the scripting, the focus blurs and the film loses its impact.
THE GRADE FOR A MONSTER CALLS = C