We’re told that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “A Monster Calls” is a beautifully told tale about a young boy dealing with the impending death of his mother who is dying from cancer and the great creature formed from an old Yew tree that helps him through it.
The story itself was written under the shadow of death. British writer Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007) had the idea for the story during her own terminal illness (breast cancer), but died before she could complete it. Patrick Ness completed the story which was published 2011.
Ness has adapted his story for the screen and under the direction of J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) the movie is a skillful blend of CGI and watercolor-like 3D animation that at times, is made to seem two-dimensional to the untrained eye.
The animation acts to separate the stories that the monster tells the boy but also ties into the artistic nature of his mother.
The movie centers on British schoolboy Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a sad boy whose school uniform doesn’t fit him quite right. It’s likely his clothes are second-hand. His face is pale and his eyes seem tired. Conor has recurring nightmares about the nearby church and its graveyard.
His teachers understand he is dealing with some hard issues and are mostly sympathetic. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in the US, but the two are not close. His father is married to someone other than Conor’s mother, Lizzie O’Malley (Felicity Jones), and has children with his wife. Because Conor’s mother is now dying of cancer, the father returns to England.
At school, Conor sits in the back of the class and eats alone. Yet in his misery, another boy, Harry (James Melville), and his friends, Anton and Sully, pick on Conor, beating him up on his way home, sneering at him during class and lunchtime. Conor often stares in anger and resentment at Harry but that only brings more unpleasant attention from Harry. All the boys are 13-year-old, but even at that age, people are different and Harry towers over Conor.
One evening, while looking out of his second story window at the old church the old yew tree suddenly erupts and unfolds into a monster that towers over the two-story houses of the village. This is the monster, gnarled branches and roots under which a red lights glows fire-like, that comes calling at exactly 12:07 at night.
The monster, voiced by Liam Neesom, promises to tell Conor three stories and, in return, Conor will tell him one story. The first story is about a prince whose widowed father, the king, marries a young witch. The king dies and the witch wants to marry the prince, but he flees with his beloved who is then murdered.
By the time of the second story, Conor has moved to his grandmother’s house (Sigourney Weaver). The home is filled with beautiful fragile objects (Limoge porcelain china figurines?) and her grandmother’s grandfather clock. Conor changes the time on the grandfather clock (12:07) to summon the monster. In the second story, a priest turns the village people against the local pharmacist who uses herbs to heal. Then the priest’s daughters fall ill. The monster suggests that the tale took place at the very church that Conor can see and that figures in his own nightmares.
The last story takes place during the day, in the cafeteria where the students are eating lunch. Harry has told Conor that he no longer seems him, that Conor is an invisible boy. When the clock changes to 12:07 p.m., the monster appears in the cafeteria, only visible to Conor and tells him the tale of an invisible man who wants to be visible.
[Spoiler alert] According to the Insight Editions book, “A Monster Calls: The Art and Vision Behind the Film,” all the tales refer back to Conor. In the first tale, the prince kills his beloved and uses the ensuing outrage to wage ware against his stepmother queen. The monster saves the young witch who then lives in exile. The prince had to be rid of the queen in order to become king. Conor must kill the figure of his mother to become a man.
In the second story, the monster saved the pharmacist who refused the priest’s plea to save his daughters because although he wasn’t a nice person, it was the priest who lacked faith and used his power to destroy the reputation of the pharmacist. While the director says this means Conor must break free of the things he doesn’t like to defend his ideals, Conor also doesn’t like his grandmother and neither he nor his grandmother nor the doctors can save his mother. There is a limit to faith and medicine over death.
The last story is quite clear. Conor must break free from what he doesn’t like, being invisible, and become visible. After Harry has told Conor he is invisible, Conor runs after Harry and beats him, finally released the built-up rage. In the latter two stories, Conor uses violence, but this is partially an expression of his grief. His anger is destructive and the consequences are not easily erased.
The last story, is Conor’s nightmare. One which hinges on Conor’s denial: He loves his mother, but he’s also tired of her suffering and wants her to die.
“A Monster Calls” is a beautiful story about a young person dealing with the terminal illness of his mother. Surely it will touch the heart of anyone at any age and is crafted sensitively with subtle performances by the entire cast. There are no bad guys here. Good and bad are not clear-cut black and white issues in this real world. “A Monster Calls” provides a script for approaching the topic of death for parents with young children.
If you find the art and story of “A Monster Calls” as bewitching and moving as I did, you’ll want to buy the Insight Editions book which is available through Amazon.com ($45) and includes the entire shooting script with storyboards at the end as well as a forward by the director J.A. Bayona and an interview with him and other members of the production team and the cast.