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A Monster Calls Review

A Monster Calls Review


A Monster Calls is a touching piece of cinema, with just the right amount of sentimentality and inspiring strength coming from its 12 year old narrator. It is a honest story about how life is hard and it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to “believe comforting lies”. The film raises an interesting question of how young people should be told bad news,  or whether they should be protected and not told at all. I cannot judge whether this is a loyal or indeed a decent adaptation of the award winning Patrick Ness novel, but it meets the topic of a very sick parent head on, with no holds barred and with great imagination.

Why and How Monsters Call

Conor O’Malley is your regular pre-teen boy, as Liam Neeson narrates, is “too old to be a kid but too young to be a man”. He couldn’t care less about school and doodles in his copybook. But it is more than just pubescent lack of attention. It is a mixture of the average kid’s experience of being bullied and the unbelievable fear of having a mother who has Cancer. Conor is trying to normalise this, keeping the house ticking over while his mum recovers from treatment  for a few days every two weeks.

It is now that Conor’s stern grandmother comes into the picture. As his mum’s health deteriorates she believes this is no way for a boy to have to act. The film is a stark contrast between the two views mentioned earlier; his mum who wants things to stay the same as long as possible, telling Conor it will be fine and Conor’s grandma and dad, who show that things are susceptible to change and he needs to accept his mum isn’t well.

Yet Conor is on his mum’s side on this occasion, calling on a tree monster both as a coping mechanism but also as a King Kong to help with his problems. As the ‘monster’ repeats several times, ‘why did you call me’, Conor seems to need a great big monster for many reasons; to face his bullies and to save his mother. Yet Conor just needs to save himself as well.

The monster comes to tell three stories, seemingly to teach Conor that not everything is as it seems.  People have good and bad in them, that those who claim to be good and those who seem to be self-serving and stubborn are not polar opposites or indeed just good or bad. Even fairytales as not always that clear-cut and the Monster’s tales are more similar to Grimm than to Disney.  He also teaches Conor to stand up for himself and that it’s okay to feel angry, though these two tales perhaps don’t have the best results.


The small cast of this movie make a stunning impact on the audience. Although side characters like Conor’s father and his oppressor Harry don’t appear for long, they give the hint that there’s more depth to them and their bad behaviour. It’s in their eyes the life is shown, much like Conor’s mother’s drawings. However it is Felicity Jones, relative newcomer Lewis MacDougal (Pan) and Sigourney Weaver who make the biggest noise.

Although the subject matter is enough to make even the stony cry, it is MacDougal‘s believability that does it for the audience. He covers every aspect of pain, from anger to downright despair as he watches his mum be hopeful that the next treatment will work. In the very end of the film, when Conor tells his own tale, his own “truth”, MacDougal shows Oscar potential and he is indeed one to watch.

Oscar nominee Felicity Jones is no stranger to portraying a carer with dignity and heart-shattering emotion, and this film is no different. We cannot blame this sheltering mother for telling Conor everything will be okay, even as she moves on to yet another treatment. In the end she shows us that she “believe[s] every word” she says. The physicality of the role also meant weight loss for Jones. Weaver is her usual depth of complications as she displays a stern and organised grandmother, only to fall apart and show the audience and Conor that this was her own way of coping. In a memorable scene after tale number two, Weaver and MacDougal share a beautifully tragic scene.

All The Trimmings

There are many memorable scenes in this movie, from the darkness of the opening to the deathly silence of another scene, but a few stood out because of more than just the acting. In particular the scenes in which it switches to animation for the Monster’s tales. The animation reminded me of the ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ section of Deathly Hallows and it is done in stop motion. Having witnessed the original illustrator, Jim Kay’s work elsewhere, the animation is somewhat similar to his, and definitely captures the colour of his vision. Also among captivating scenes is the recurring nightmare which opens the film and serves as a crux of Conor’s pain. Another scene of note is a montage of sorts between tale two and three that shows just how fast time passes and how precious time is, as the Monster points out.

What I liked about this film beyond the heart-wrenching performances and animation was that the author wrote the screenplay and they kept it British. Half the problem with bad adaptations sometimes is that too much is changed, or the story is given a Hollywood makeover. This film had aspects of a bigger film, but at its heart is was a simple British tale of how people are complicated.

Go see this magical film when it’s released in Irish cinemas 1st January 2017. Rated 12a.