A beautifully layered and poignant episode in the life of a pre-teen having to come to grips to some of life’s sometimes unfair and yet inevitable truths, J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls is a wonderfully expressive and imaginative fantasy drama.
The Production: 4/5
A dark, psychological coming-of-age fantasy, J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls offers a deeply poignant and easily identifiable drama with stirring performances and a most impressive production. With giant beings interacting with children a favorite theme of 2016 films (also reference Pete’s Dragon and The BFG), A Monster Calls deals with the most serious subject of the trio, contemplating and accepting death as a natural part of life, and it would take a cold person indeed to not become emotionally invested in the story of one young British lad doing what he can to deal with forces beyond his control.
With his mother (Felicity Jones) desperately ill with cancer and trying every available treatment to combat it, young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) finds himself alone with his dad (Toby Kebbell) living in America with a new family and Conor having to battle bullies at school and a nitpicking grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who’s been brought in in case treatments don’t go as hoped. Conor’s nightmares and general angst awaken a nearby ancient yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) who begins visiting him just after midnight and begins spinning a series of three cryptic tales which baffle the young lad. The tree demands that at the end of his third tale, the lad will have to offer him a tale of truth in return.
Patrick Ness’ screenplay begins with a hellish nightmare of a collapsing graveyard and young Conor desperately trying to save someone in his grasp, a vision which is so disturbing but is merely the first in a series of anxiety-ridden moments in a very dark and psychologically probing film. With a mother dying of cancer, an absent father, a grandmother who takes the fun out of living, and thoughtless bullies plaguing his every hour at school (this latter conflict really seemed unnecessarily piled on to Conor’s already overstressed world though the third tale inevitably relates to it) along with three relatively dark fables, poor Conor (along with the viewer as his surrogate) has very little in his life which brings him pleasure or release. The three tales told by the Monster are animated with a jarring and compelling drawing style which makes their impact – apart from the fact that they break open fairy tale clichés and expose hypocrisy – quite uniquely revelatory (though the young Conor may not understand the meanings and proclaims them nonsense, we certainly understand their implications). There’s method to the madness of director J.A. Bayona’s techniques, all of which come full circle as the narrative’s threads all inevitably tie together, and some of the chic transitions between the fantasy moments and Conor’s returning to the real world are really beautifully accomplished.
The performances are superb. Young Lewis MacDougall is put through the physical and emotional wringer as Conor and emerges as a young lad who wears the mantel of maturity quite well. Liam Neeson’s dynamic forcefulness of voice are perfect for the Monster’s guttural growl, and his motion capture performance as the tree creature is likewise impressive. Sigourney Weaver offers a solid and unfussy approach to the grandmother even if her British accent sometimes seems a bit off. Felicity Jones is a wonderful mother and very convincing as her illness progresses and she becomes physically and vocally weaker. Toby Kebbell has several good moments the weak and ineffectual father.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is stunning (you can easily count cracks in the Monster’s tree bark if you wish), and color design is quite alluring, especially the animation sequences with their unusual hues and brushstroke techniques. Contrast has been consistently applied for the best possible image harvest, and black levels are superb with outstanding details in the shadows (since much of the film occurs at night, black levels become quite important). The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix contains a deeply rich and varied use of the surround channels that immerse the viewer in its fantastical world. Dialogue has been expertly recorded and has been placed in the center channel, and the background score by Fernando Velazquez and the stunning atmospheric effects get outstanding spread through all available channels.
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentaries: director J.A. Bayona (who speaks his commentary in Spanish with optional subtitles on the secondary subtitle track) and novelist/screenwriter Patrick Ness each get a commentary track to himself to talk about the project, how it came into existence, and praise the contributions of the multi-national cast and crew.
Deleted Scenes (6:22, HD): five cut scenes may be viewed together or separately.
The Making of A Monster Calls (20:30, HD): producers Belén Atienza, Patrick Wachsberger, and Énrique López-Lavigne, director J.A. Bayona, production designer Eugenio Caballero, special effects coordinator Felix Berges, screenwriter Patrick Ness, and actors Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, and Liam Neeson discuss their collaboration on the project.
Making of the Tales (8:14, HD): a wordless look at the construction of the three tales told through animation, visual effects, and music.
DVD/Digital Copy/Ultraviolet: disc and code sheet enclosed in the case.
A beautifully layered and poignant episode in the life of a pre-teen having to come to grips with some of life’s sometimes unfair and yet inevitable truths, J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls is a wonderfully expressive and imaginative fantasy drama. The Universal Blu-ray release is reference quality visually and aurally and is surely worth a look if one is a fan of the work of its director or stars. Recommended!