On monsters, mothers and metaphors, and on the competing impulses of the personal and the spectacular
A Monster Calls Focus Features
Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenplay: Patrick Ness, based upon his novel, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, James Melville and Liam Neeson
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 48 minutes / 2.35:1
January 13, 2017
(out of four)
If you understand the trajectory of J.A. Bayona's career, A Monster Calls makes perfect sense. The director began his feature-film career as a protégé of Guillermo del Toro, who lent both his producing clout and aesthetic influence to Bayona's outstanding horror debut, The Orphanage, which shared more than a little DNA with del Toro's previous effort, Pan's Labyrinth - and with the Mexican auteur's general penchant for ghosts and monsters.
Bayona's next effort, due in 2018, will be Jurassic World 2, the fifth entry in a blockbuster franchise first brought to life by Steven Spielberg. And here is where the pieces connect. A Monster Calls is stuck more or less in the middle between Bayona's del Toro roots and his Spielberg ambitions. On one hand the gnarled, gothic, beautiful monstrosities occupying realms of morally relative darkness; on the other, the regenerative spectacle of fantasy itself, the sheer wonder of the huge and impossible, the deeply sentimental ideals, the reassurance that everything's going to be OK.
There's built-in crossover between the two, notably the way their fantasies both spring from the youthful subconscious, like aftershocks of pain and tragedy. But that doesn't mean they make particularly good bedfellows. A Monster Calls is essentially a small movie trying to be a big one. An intimate story - an internal one, in fact - blown out into a special-effects extravaganza. That disconnect is at least partly by design; and it wouldn't be so bad if the film had handled that intimacy - the emotions held at bay, the hidden reservoirs of grief, pain, guilt - with the delicacy it deserved. But Bayona, as it turns out, is a lousy sentimentalist.
Spielberg is often accused of being overwrought, but contemporaries and presumptive heirs like Bayona decisively underscore how thoughtful Spielberg is in his sentimentality - how precise his directorial hand, how delicately he handles his emotional stakes. Bayona, on the other hand ... well, his previous feature, 2012's ripped-from-the-headlines tsunami thriller The Impossible, was downright offensive in its emotional manipulation. That was a movie that decided it would be a good idea to stage its long-awaited reunion between presumed-dead parents and their presumed-dead children as a "fun" game of accidental cat-and-mouse - they're in the same location but repeatedly just miss each other, like something out of a farcical comedy - which was not just tone-deaf and sadistic but made the actual reunion, when it finally came, feel like a cheap payoff to manufactured suspense.
He doesn't do anything quite so insulting in A Monster Calls, but the scope of the emotional stakes still gets the best of him. The experience at the center of the film - that of a young boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), coping with his mother's cancer - is an isolated and personal one, but with the sheer scale of a film like this, its every small, personal moment is magnified, blown up into something bigger, more dramatic, more universal. Yet this magnification only makes them feel more trite. With his mother's condition worsening, Conor is visited each night - right at 12:07, just after midnight - by the physical manifestation of his burgeoning coming-of-age, his moral conscience, his physical and intellectual awakening. Naturally, for a kid his age (he's around 12 or so), this comes in the form of a monster - not unlike the monsters he sketches in his room as an escape - and that monster is a grand, sprawling yew tree come to life, methodically stomping its way to Conor's bedroom window each night. The Monster (equally terrific in its special-effects artistry and its voice work by Liam Neeson) is all the things Conor doesn't yet understand, or possess - the wisdom, the anger, the violence, the restraint.
That the Monster is primarily a delivery device for a series of parables - imparted to Conor, one per night, in Neeson's gravelly timbre, during which the Monster is off-screen, replaced by animated renderings of each tale - is one of the film's many disappointments. What a waste of this great visual creation - this menacing and majestic thicket of physical and emotional knots. A giant marauding bramble reduced to a glorified whisper of strained meanings and morals. The disconnect between small drama and big CGI fantasy becomes more pronounced than ever. Bayona and his artists don't merely create an impression of the Monster - as prose does, using our imagination to create what's only written; or even as an illustrated version might - but go out of their way to make him an overpowering physical presence. And yet when all is said and done, that presence is strangely underwhelming. The Monster may be the voice in Conor's head, but must he be such a hushed one?
And then there are the stories themselves, and how they function within the narrative. When the Monster appears, he flatly announces that he will be telling one story each night, for three nights, and that on the fourth night he expects Conor to tell his own story. This doesn't so much structure the character's emotional arc as suffocate it. I suppose calling the stories didactic would be redundant, but they're applied in such rigid, prescriptive order that it actively harms their psychological and metaphorical significance. Instead of being immersed in this kid's state of mind, we simply have to pause periodically to learn a lesson.
Bayona's skill is unmistakable - and tailor-made for large-scale filmmaking. The tsunami sequence in The Impossible was remarkable in its physical power; the way his waves attacked the serenity of the film's opening moments is the kind of thing big screens and surround sound were designed to capture. But then and now, he's still clumsily trying to figure out how to marry spectacle and character, to modulate the magnitude of his images and his sentiment. At the moment, the verdict is that he was better off in more of a del Toro world - not just on a smaller scale, but a weirder one. Something like A Monster Calls seems like the perfect vehicle with which to split the difference, and yet its impulses tend to work against each other. Ultimately, the whole of Conor's experience - the Monster, the stories, the nightmares, the fantasies - is meant to amplify how he's dealing with his mom's illness, and his impending loss. Except Bayona somehow undersells the mother/son relationship, to the extent that it feels like a plot point intended to give the Monster meaning instead of the other way around. This is a childhood tragedy and a fantasy epic rolled into one, and yet it manages to misuse the two most powerful figures in the protagonist's life, Mom and Monster. Conor needs one to cope with the other, and the film gives him neither.