Review: A Monster Calls (TIFF 2016)

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

PLOT: A young boy (Lewis MacDougall) who’s struggling to come to terms with his dying mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness is befriended by a monstrous, storytelling tree demon (voiced by Liam Neeson).

REVIEW: A couple of TIFF’s ago, director J.A Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE) came to town with what proved to be one of the more underrated films of the last few years, THE IMPOSSIBLE. Now he’s back with a complex, fantasy-drama that’ll no doubt dazzle receptive audiences with its storytelling and world-building, while also making even the most jaded film fan reach for the hankies, as evidenced by the loud sobs coming from the packed press and industry screening – and bear in mind a crowd doesn’t come much more cynical than that.

In many ways, its very reminiscent of Alexandre Aja’s recent THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX, in that it melds fantasy to a child’s coming to terms with life and death. However, unlike that this is free of any gotcha plot twists or melodrama, and the fantasy elements, even if they are lavish and impeccably rendered with top-notch CGI, are secondary to what’s actually a small-scale story.

Similar to how he directed Tom Holland in THE IMPOSSIBLE, Bayona once again shows a knack for directing kids, with MacDougall making for one of the more believable child characters on-screen in a long time. No doe-eyed innocent, he’s prone to acting-out, whether it’s talking back to his absentee dad (Toby Kebbell) or in his most vicious moment, destroying his grandmother’s prized antique family heirloom clock out of spite.

Even still, it’s hard not to wholly identify with him. His heart-breakingly kind mother (Felicity Jones – who’s maybe never been better) is on the verge of being torn for him, while he faces a grim fate of his own which involves being packed-off to live with his cold grandma, a haughty but layered Sigourney Weaver (affecting a solid English accent). Haunted by nightmares, his dream-life mingles with his real-world struggles as a tree demon begins visiting him every night at 12:06, demanding that the boy be an audience for his ambiguous fairy-tales (told with CGI that resembles the illustrations in writer Patrick Ness’s novel – on which this is based).

Reminiscent of the original NEVERENDING STORY, Bayona’s made an uncommonly intelligent family movie, although one wonders if in an era of “trigger-warnings” kids will be allowed to watch something that so boldly tackles the theme of loss. Hopefully they will. While it’s sad, A MONSTER CALLS is also proves to be a very cathartic tale, and even amid the dozens of movies I’ve already seen at this year’s TIFF this hit me on an emotional level.

All put together, this makes for a wonderful package. Boasting a beautiful score by Fernando Velazquez and gorgeous lensing by THE IMPOSSIBLE/ THE IMITATION GAME’s Oscar Faura, as well as amazing vocal contributions by Liam Neeson, A MONSTER CALLS is a pretty stunning achievement and a major triumph for Bayona. One hopes audiences will reward this at the box office, although it shouldn’t be considered a full-on genre effort as it transcends any classification.

A Monster Calls



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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.