The word ‘monster’ is derived from the latin verb ‘monere’ — meaning to warn or to advise, particularly in a divine sense. Likewise, the nameless behemoth in J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls arrives with a series of mysterious lessons in tow. His would-be pupil is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve year-old victim of bullying who is struggling to cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. The monster — possibly imagined, possibly real — brings him three fairy tales which impact upon his relationships with his distant father (Toby Kebbell) and his stiff-lipped grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). A Monster Calls may be a tear-jerking exploration of grief, but it manages to portray the tempestuous emotions associated with the loss of a loved one with surprising nuance for what is essentially a children’s film.
The titular monster, voiced by the soothing, gravelly tones of Liam Neeson, does not initially appear to be a creature of benevolence. Its hulking frame — in particularly its amber eyes — scream destruction and violence. Yet the monster (which is actually a walking yew tree) professes itself to be a creature of healing. It is this idea of healing — from illness, from psychological stress, and within the family dynamic — that resurfaces throughout. Accordingly, nothing about the experience of watching this film is easy. A Monster Calls is an exercise in emotional catharsis, which interweaves simple but poignant moral undertones in between moments of sheer sorrow. Perhaps this is both the film’s greatest strength and biggest drawback. As a piece of cinema that encapsulates grief it succeeds; its emotional impact is as forceful as it is cloying. Yet its portrayal of grief is not, by any means, a superficial one. Cancer often causes a slow death, amplifying painful goodbyes, and likewise there is a meditative quality as this film builds towards the inevitable end. Unlike other so-called cancer movies (Josh Boone’s 2014 film The Fault in Our Stars comes to mind) A Monster Calls never pretends that there is a monolithic, normal way to grieve. Our young protagonist shifts restlessly between confusion and comprehension, chaos and tranquility.
Like his Spanish-language contemporary Guillermo Del Toro, who produced his 2007 film The Orphanage, Bayona works in a mode that casts real-world tragedies amidst a fantasy landscape. In A Monster Calls we have a giant, kaiju-like tree and a series of whimsical fables that would make Aesop blush. It is no coincidence that Bayona and Guillermo Del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is the cornerstone of blending cruel reality with gentle fantasy, are long-term acquaintances and creative collaborators. Yet, A Monster Calls distinguishes itself from Del Toro’s most iconic film by extending its reach into the realm of kaiju creatures. That the monster is influenced by kaiju conventions is clear from the film’s brief but obvious homage to King Kong – though not technically a kaiju creature himself, Kong is often grouped with other kaiju since his appearance in Ishirō Honda’s 1962 film King Kong vs Godzilla. Yet the tree-monster is more of a metaphorical kaiju than a true monster – he sits in the comfortably ambiguous realm of being simultaneously real and imagined. He wreaks destruction and havoc, but on a smaller and less deliberate scale than his cinematic forebears. An as allegorical monster, the tree becomes both a mentor and the actualisation of monstrous sorrow, not unlike Nacho Vigalondo’s recent Colossal (2016) where that kaiju occupies an equivalent symbolic space.
The delightful animation that accompanies the tree’s three central fables is another departure from the traditional kaiju film form. Each has the visual quality of a watercolour painting and the stylistic spirit of a medieval tapestry. The tales are simple and straightforward – at least, initially. Conor becomes agitated when the moral lessons prove to be more grey than black and white upon reinspection. They are cautionary in nature, and their true meaning lies beyond Conor’s imagination. They act as both moral anchors and narrative propellants that ensure the film’s three acts do not become mired in despair. The last lesson – the most painful lesson of all, is also the truest and most heartfelt.
If A Monster Calls is a story of grief, its final fable is an ode to the horrors we dare not contemplate as a result. Likewise, exposing children to the complexities of something we must all face – death – may better prepare them for life’s most unavoidable tragedy. Just as Conor uses art to navigate his understanding, A Monster Calls is a roadmap through grief, childhood and the inevitable loss of loved ones.