Like Pixar’s Inside Out, A Monster Calls reminds children and teenagers that it’s OK to be sad and angry – life isn’t always a fairy tale. Twelve-year-old Conor’s (a spectacular Lewis MacDougall) mother Lizzie (Rogue One’s Felicity Jones looking very different to her Star Wars alter ego) is very ill. On the surface, he is utterly convinced that she is going to get better, but his distraction at school, dejected disposition and recurring nightmare suggest he knows that’s not true.
The movie opens with this nightmare: Conor is in a churchyard that’s seemingly mid-earthquake, grasping desperately onto the hand of a woman who’s fallen into a ravine. And then he wakes. It’s 12.07am, and the yew tree in the field opposite is unbending, to reveal itself as a fire-breathing monster who wants to talk to Conor.
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The tree-monster promises to tell Conor three stories, at the end of which Conor must share his “truth”. Conor is reluctant, but as the monster shares the tales, in which the line between hero and villain is heavily blurred, the boy starts to realise how they could reflect on his own predicament, and how nothing in life is as black and white as it seems.
Interspersed between gripping, powerfully acted live action scenes are animated sections which beautifully illustrate the fables in a way reminiscent of The Tale of the Three Brothers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Although the tales tell of death and destruction, the animations add life and colour to the grey scenes of Conor’s dreary existence.
Based on the book of the same name by YA author Patrick Ness, there is no way this film was ever going to end happily. (And it’s not really a “kids’” film – it’s a bit too dark for pre-teens.) But it’s sad, rather than depressing, and teaches some very important lessons, which are ultimately uplifting: be true to yourself. Understand that people are complicated, and there’s no such thing as completely good or completely bad. And tell people you love them while you can.
Edited by Lucy Christie