In ‘A Monster Calls,’ the monsters are both literal and figurative

Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage), A Monster Calls is a visually spectacular and stunningly emotional drama based on the award-winning novel. The screenplay adaptation is by the book’s author, Patrick Ness. Ness wrote the novel from an original idea by his friend, the late Siobhan Dowd.

Lewis MacDougall, in one of the year’s breakthrough performances, plays 12-year-old Conor O’Malley who escapes into a fantastical world of monsters and fairy tales. He is dealing with his mother’s (Rogue One’s Felicity Jones) illness, which has necessitated Conor’s spending time with his less-than-sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). His daily existence at his U.K. school is one of academic disinterest and bullying by classmates. As Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away in the U.S., the boy yearns for guidance.

He unexpectedly summons a most unlikely ally, who bursts forth with terrifying grandeur from an ancient towering yew tree and the powerful earth below it: a 40-foot-high colossus of a creature (portrayed in performance-capture and voiceover by Liam Neeson) who appears at Conor’s bedroom window at 12:07 AM one night – and at that time on nights thereafter. The Monster has stories to tell, and he insists that Conor hear them and powerfully visualize them. Conor’s fear gives way to feistiness and then to looking within; for, The Monster demands that once the tales are told it will be time for Conor to tell his own story in return. Ancient, wild and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith and truth.

This journey evokes a modern-day Grimm’s fairy tale. Movies that are compared to fairy tales are usually the cut-and-paste rom-coms where, after the usual mishaps and misunderstandings, the female protagonist finally lands her Prince Charming. Fairy tales, however, were much darker than these modern-day “fairy tales” would have you believe. Rapunzel was held prisoner, locked away in a tower until she was rescued by her Prince Charming. Cinderella was abused by her stepmother and stepsisters until she found her Prince Charming. Snow White’s stepmother takes it beyond abuse and tries to kill her in a jealous rage. While they all have the happily-ever-afters, there’s a lot of darkness on the way.

A Monster Calls is a modern-day fairy tale in the truest, Grimmest sense. There’s a lot of darkness on our young protagonist’s journey. While Conor is dealing with a figurative monster in the form of his mother’s cancer, he’s visited by the literal monster. While living out his own literal Grim fairy tale, the monster shares figurative fairy tales with the troubled boy to help him deal with his own nightmarish fairy tale.

Make no mistake, this is not a fairy tale for children. Though Conor’s journey also evokes director Bayana’s mentor’s masterpiece, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, A Monster Calls is almost relentlessly sad. Though unrelentingly sad, the film is cathartic. Who among us haven’t felt enveloped by darkness? Sometimes you have to embrace the darkness to see the light. And make no mistake, bring tissues. A Monster Calls is a tearjerker, but you leave feeling oddly uplifted. To show Conor the light, the film purges him, and ourselves, of the monsters that haunt us.

A Monster Calls is now playing in select theaters and opens nationwide January 6th.

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