Film Review: ‘A Monster Calls’

A Monster Calls TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Though visually stunning, J.A. Bayona's gothic fable about an angry boy and the massive tree monster who comes to his rescue is all bark and no bite.

In a year full of fantastic creatures and imaginary friends — in which orphan Pete adopted his own dragon and lonely Sophie found a Big Friendly Giant to keep her company — 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, the young hero of “A Monster Calls,” may as well have drawn the short end of the stick: His CG buddy is a tree.

While his mother (Felicity Jones) battles cancer and his dad (Toby Kebbell) gets ready to move across the ocean to America, the poor British kid (a lonely little-boy-lost played by relative newcomer Lewis MacDougall) is beset by problems too big to confront alone. His torment awakens the ancient yew tree (magnificently voiced by Liam Neeson) just beyond his bedroom window. When the tree unexpectedly uproots itself and stomps on enormous gnarled-root legs over to Conor’s house, it’s meant to be quite an intimidating encounter, but the boy isn’t scared — and neither are we — in a splendidly rendered, yet oddly ill-conceived terminal-illness melodrama that feels much too dark and serious for audiences Conor’s age, and an even more curious fit for grown-ups.

That leaves one giant demographic in between: the all-powerful “fanboy” contingent — those adult kids whose ability to identify so easily with genre studies of adolescent emotional turmoil just might save this movie, if only Focus could quickly figure out how to fix its marketing campaign. More likely, “A Monster Calls” will join a long list of tragic box-office disappointments (of which “The Iron Giant” is probably the closest analogy) that are embraced as cult classics by such fantasy connoisseurs years down the road.

Working in its favor, “A Monster Calls” is an incredibly small and intimate gothic fable — albeit one that relies on elaborately commissioned animation and visual-effects components — from J.A. Bayona, the ultra-talented director of unnerving Spanish chiller “The Orphanage” and visceral tsunami-survival epic “The Impossible.” The latter should have launched Bayona to the top of the A-list, but never quite found its audience in the U.S., and so he regroups, as like-minded Mexican helmer Guillermo del Toro did on “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” to a more personal project (en route to directing the next “Jurassic Park” sequel).

By comparison with his more overtly Spielbergian early work, “A Monster Calls” feels like a dainty little dollhouse of a movie, constructed in an old-fashioned expressionistic style that calls attention to its own artifice: Meticulously appointed rooms actually look like stage sets, clothing feels like costumes, and the actors’ reactions are so minutely telegraphed that we read them as performances rather than real emotions, all of which is accentuated by an orchestral score so lovely (from Fernando Velázquez), we find ourselves listening to the music, instead of simply letting it enrich the rest.

In Bayona’s defense, many of those choices are dictated by Patrick Ness’ overly precious screenplay, which the author has woodenly adapted from his own novel, both of which rely on a needlessly elaborate scenario in order to make an incredibly simple (and, let’s admit it, painfully obvious) point — namely, that it’s OK to grieve. Considering how seldom anyone writes tree-hugging fantasy stories these days, it’s hard not to compare this one to Shel Silverstein’s far superior “The Giving Tree,” which embraces elegant simplicity in place of this film’s more ambiguous dynamic between a boy and his arboreal best friend — his only friend, actually.

Conor’s only other companion is his grandmother (a curiously cast Sigourney Weaver, who’s terrific, if not entirely convincing as a severe old British woman). When the tree first chooses to visit Conor, our protagonist — “a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” — is plagued by the fear that he will lose his mother, whom he sees plunging to her death in a recurring nightmare set in the old graveyard at the top of the hill. For decades, if not centuries, the tree has stood sentry over this cemetery, but now, responding to the sheer force of Conor’s anxieties, it once again decides to get involved in the affairs of men.

How wise we humans would be if we could somehow find a way to harvest all that trees have witnessed in their eons on earth. Between Neeson’s deep-bass voiceover and Oriol Tarragó’s elaborate, ever-splintering sound design, this mostly-animatronic “monster” may seem vaguely intimidating at times, but is ultimately a benevolent creature with a friendly enough pact to offer: The tree, who always visits at precisely the same time (12:07, his own personal witching hour), will tell Conor three stories, and once it has finished, the boy must offer one of his own — or else … well, the movie never quite establishes what the stakes might be if Conor doesn’t comply, thereby sapping any notion of suspense. The all-important priority is that Conor must speak his own truth — which is to say, he must confront the nightmare that has been troubling him all this time.

For the tree’s first two tales, Bayona has enlisted Headless animation director Adrián García, who supplies a pair of sublime visual sequences to accompany a pair of stories which wouldn’t be all that interesting otherwise. The first toys with fairy-tale clichés, attempting to dismantle the Prince Charming myth, while the second is a tragic account of hypocrisy in the face of medieval faith — and though neither Conor nor audiences can immediately make sense of why we’re hearing this, García’s work elevates these scenes into exquisite artistic interludes, in which what appears to be some combination of wet ink and watercolor comes to life before our eyes.

By the third story, which begins promisingly enough — “There was once an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen” — Bayona has either ran out of budget or time, and so we remain stuck in Conor’s fraying reality, which, of course, is what most needs mending. The boy is angry, beset by bullies, overwhelmed by grief, and desperately in need of an outlet. And yet, only he is blind to his situation. His mother, father, grandmother, and the entire audience recognize his pain and anticipate the film’s big, tear-jerky reveal from miles away. We’ve heard the same lesson countless times before in other movies, and though it’s certainly impressive to see Conor’s anxieties manifest themselves in such a stunning Ent-like being, as monsters go, Bayona’s creation is all bark and no bite.

Film Review: 'A Monster Calls'

Reviewed at Beverly Hills Screening Room, Los Angeles, Aug. 2016. (In Toronto Film Festival — Gala Presentations.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 108 MINS.


(U.S.-Spain) A Focus Features release and presentation, in association with Participant Media, River Road Entertainment, of an Apaches Entertainment, Telecino Cinema, A Monster Calls AIE, La Trini production. Producer: Belén Atienza. Executive producers: Patrick Ness, Jeff Skoll, Bill Pohlad, Jonathan King, Mitch Horwits, Patrick Wachsberger, Énrique López-Lavigne, Ghislain Barrois, Álvaro Augustin. Co-producer: Sandra Hermida.


Director: J.A. Bayona. Screenplay, Patrick Ness, based on his novel, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd. Camera (color, widescreen): Óscar Faura. Editors: Bernat Vilaplana, Jaume Martí.


Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Ben Moor, James Melville, Oliver Steer, Dominic Boyle, Jennifer Lim, Geraldine Chaplin, Liam Neeson.

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  1. Tommy Hunt says:

    I was going to review this review and say something about the movie but you all did it so well. Bravo! Ok, I will say something about the reviewer. I think he came up with the clever line: “Bayona’s creation is all bark and no bite” then proceeded to write the review to fit the clever line. Boy oh boy.

  2. Rachel says:

    This is a really bad review by someone who didn’t under the story. Did you read the book? You really missed the point.

  3. Jarnagua says:

    This is as terrible and unfair film critique. It’s not about being “ok to grieve”; it’s about the paradox of human emotions and how confusing that is. get it right. If you really think BFG and Pete’s Dragon were better films, then you seriously need to turn in your critic’s card. That kid’s performance was amazing.

  4. Amp26b says:

    Sorry, but A monster calls is badly edited: Perhaps you didn’t see a goof in the editing abouth the 16mm king kong mixed with the colour king kong. A monster calls is boring, overrated, it’s a copy of Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Amenábar movies. By the way, the monster is bad CG, to me it’s totally expresionless. And it’s a little cross-eyed creature. The ending is really predictable. And yes, it’s a bad movie from the beginning to the end. Sorry, but this movie is a big fail. J.A.Bayona is an overrated director. And a bad narrator.Sorry.

    A monster calls: 3/10

  5. TV says:

    “too dark for kids”? it’s PG 13.
    It’s perfect for teenagers! Not only those that have experienced loss, or are going through similar things. ANY teenager. The stories by the tree (and ultimately the whole story itself) teaches that world is not black and white, like in fairy tales, it’s more complicated. And that age 12-13 (plus or minus a year depending on a kid’s maturity) is a perfect age to start learning it.

  6. Mr. Debruge: READ the book, then WATCH the movie.This movie is relate-able to anyone who has lost a parent, child or anyone who means anything. It is emotional, because it is about emotions and how humans disguise them. At some point in our lives, it happens to us all. It is a beautiful tale.

  7. William Hill. says:

    the reviewer did not see the movie obviously. He got a huge part of the story completely wrong.

  8. The reviewer would have dome well to read the book – which incidentally is a PRIZEWINNING piece of ‘Young Adult’ fiction with equally PRIZEWINNING illustrations…
    Agree that the point has either intentionally, or worse unintentionally, missed…
    This is definitely not a review that will win its writer prizes.

  9. Alison August Fuller says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever read a review and finished it convinced the reviewer hadn’t actually watched the movie. This review has so wildly missed the point that I’m shocked it’s been printed. Who is this guy?? At best his misinformed and lazy. At worst he’s deliberately misrepresented the story and the movie itself to generate more clicks and be the Simon Cowell of this peice. Never have I read a review where I’ve felt the reviewer wants to be the main character in this ridiculous Variety entry.. Very vulgar.

  10. The reviewer seems to have missed the point of the film. The film is specifically about how humans and feelings are not simple. The Giving Tree, while brilliant, serves an entirely different purpose. Yes, it is darker than most films for 12 year olds but at the same time it addresses many things we – teens or adults – avoid talking about. The fact it focuses on emotion is not a weakness, but a strength.

    And, I should think it’s brilliant for 12 year olds who may be struggling with difficulties that everyone else brushes over because they’re supposedly too young to have problems.

  11. Cath says:

    Interesting view point but I don’t feel that you got the point of this film and that is the point …. to feel. He isn’t worried about loosing his mother, the dream of him letting her go isn’t that he is loosing her but that he wants it to end, he wants to let her go and that’s what he feels guilty about.
    I agree it’s not really a child’s film but it’s interesting, dramatic and hits you in the heart …. especially if you have ever been ill and afraid of leaving your children behind

  12. Jacen says:

    Too dark and serious for the boy’s age? He’s 12! What, 12 year olds never ever have to experience any kind of pain? Their parents always stay healthy until long after the children are adults? I’ve never understood the disconnect that happens when people get to adulthood and forget just how miserable childhood can be and, in the case of the well-adjusted, how much we enjoy dark stuff as kids. Yes, I know you don’t want your kids waking you up at four AM with nightmares, but that’s going to happen even if you stick them in a rubber room with nothing but warm fuzzies for the first 18 years of their lives. Better to give them things like this, Charlotte’s Web (which I saw and read at age 8), A Mouse and HIs Child (age 9) and other “too dark” stuff.

  13. Jack says:

    What a tour de force display of condescension. I have never seen a film reviewer display such delight in his superciliousness. Perhaps Peter Debruge ultimately wants a job at the London Times, and so wishes to show his future employers that a boy from Waco, Texas can be just as pompous and dismissive as an aristocrat from Eton and Oxford. Good luck with that Peter, and please do go as soon as possible.

  14. Cade says:

    Sir, you obviously did not read the book. Many of your “criticisms” are in fact things from the book that you simply do not understand. You make a pathetic attempt to find fault with a faultless film, and if you have any self respect you will retract your “review” from Variety. I hope you are fully ashamed of yourself.


  15. themrmbg says:

    Actually, the part where there’s “mending” is intentional. In the book, the scene about Conor being seen is accompanied by the monster’s storytelling to raise the intensity and the suspense.

  16. Peter Diamond says:

    Spoiler: The point of the film is not that it’s okay to grieve, but that it’s okay to want it to end, in other words, that he wishes his mother would die and his suffering end. Much more powerful than you make out.

  17. And you call yourselves Chief Film Critic? Grow up.

  18. Nick says:

    What a shitty review! Pointless

    • Really? says:

      OMG I felt the exact same way! This review was utterly pointless and did not give any meaningful insight to the movie. It’s as if the reviewer just enjoyed hearing himself speak for the sake of speaking.

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