What makes a story about a teenage boy, his sick mother and an angry tree worthy of the May Fair Hotel Gala at London Film Festival? I’m still not sure. A Monster Calls trips over its own roots and falls slightly short. The eponymous monster is voiced by the beloved gruff and grizzly Liam Neeson, and yet the earthy creature is still outshone by Felicity Jones. Probably in the same way that, annoyingly, everything she encounters is cast in the shadows. Ever.
At least something shines though, as A Monster Calls doesn’t have a great deal of excitement to offer. It’s pretty hard to believe when you glance at the checklist of appetizing Gala features. Excellent visual effects, a safe and suave Sigourney Weaver, and a bestselling novel which tugs on all the heartstrings. What could go possibly wrong? The better question to ask then would be why do we need another one of these films? Each winning component here only further compliments its inspiring source text in the pale depiction that it offers.
Neeson’s monster is a taller, louder Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy – and far less funny. The fact that he isn’t even given a name in this tale just emphasizes that his sole appeal lies in, well, the fact that it’s Liam Neeson. Although recently child actors have been pretty impressive on screen, if you think of the likes of Captain Fantastic or Little Men, Conor O’Malley here (as the monster annoyingly insists on calling him exhaustively and which just puts the leading feline of The Aristocats at the forefront of my mind) feels like a shaky schoolboy struggling with his own words. That’s fine for the character in theory, less so if all you can see is the actor barely remembering his own lines, swimming in Conor’s shell. Lewis Macdougall, unfortunately, is not believable as the plucky and strong-willed 13-year-old dealing with grief, loneliness and stifling love. All that transpires is his own tepid delivery.
Once the half-hearted nudges and whimpers, inconsequential and underwhelming, are out of the way, the destruction that bends the imagination really hits home. Moments expressing that anger, which would be given at least a couple of pages in the novel, are those that redeem his performance. When Conor’s anger matches the monster, when his love elevates him alongside his mother and against his grandmother, that is when the film sees its more compelling moments. It’s not all bad though, a nod must be given to Bayona for the truly lovely watercolour sequences which testify the director’s flair and give the film, if only for a sparse half hour, a reasonably poetic skin.
These scenes, narrated by Neeson, showcase the story’s qualities and the film’s assets knowingly and effectively as the symbolism shines through, a work of art provides a key USP for AMC and, well, Conor isn’t anywhere to be seen.
Ultimately, what A Monster Calls struggles from is what most bestselling-novel-turned-high-grossing-film suffer from. The depth of emotion, intrigue and imagination that read on the pages are not given enough screen time, projecting two dimensional representations of a once rich story.