Review: A Monster Calls (2016)


A young boy’s journey through the uncertainties behind guilt and grief as accompanied by an otherworldly monster makes for one for one of 2016’s best films.

A child’s relationship with his parents with his parents while they are young is a very special bond. Your parents are your heroes, your role models, and your best friends. The worst nightmare a child struggles through is often the terrible scenario of having to lose one or both of their parents and being left alone.

A Monster Calls deals with this situation through the eyes of the film’s young protagonist Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis MacDougall). Conor has a deep relationship with his mother Lizzie (Rogue One’s Felicity Jones). Both are imaginative and artistic free spirits; they spend their nights watching old monster movies on 16 mm film in their living room. She is his best friend; unfortunately, she is also dying from a terminal illness. As her condition worsens, so does Conor’s quality of life. He is an outcast in school; bullied and picked on. His father (Black Mirror’s) Toby Kebbel) has left and moved to America and started a new family. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is his only family and she is distant and aloof and Conor sees only contempt in her eyes and not love. At home, he takes care of his mom and rarely sleeps; haunted by nightmares of seeing his mother fall into a pit from which he cannot save her. One night, at seven minutes past midnight, Conor is visited by a tall tee-like monster (Liam Neeson). The Monster has come to tell Conor three stories, after which Conor will have to tell the monster his story; that of his dream of his mother falling in the pit and what does it mean.

At it’s heart, A Monster Calls is a fable that deals with the shades of grey surrounding the inevitable passing of a loved one. How you can love someone so much that you realize it would be better for them to pass away than continue to suffer and the guilt that comes from wishing for relief from suffering. The Monster tells Conor stories where the lesson seems obvious, but where subtleties and human nature color the outcome. Even Conor’s relationship with his bullies, his mother, and his grandmother are more complex than seen at first glance. Grief can color one’s perception of the world around them and we see that from multiple perspectives in this film. This is a sad film, but also one that celebrates life and the richness that it can imbue on others even when they are gone.

Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) skillfully directs the film and imbues it with a feel of magical realism and fantasy while keeping the important relationships in the film grounded in reality. The story unfolds organically and locks our perspective in with Conor. Lewis MacDougall gives an amazing performance; one full of awe, sadness and anger; made all the more impressive by the fact that he largely acts against CGI for most of the film. Felicity Jones makes her character likeable while, at the same time, letting us see that keeping Conor in the dark about the gravity of her situation doesn’t serve his best interests. The Monster’s fables are strikingly animated in a pseudo-watercolor digital style and very reminiscent of the tale of The Golden Army in Gullermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II (the film’s art and production designers also worked on Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth). Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell both have the hardest jobs in the film in terms of presenting enough subtlety and charm in their performances to make us see them in completely different lights given differing circumstances throughout the film.


A Monster Calls is one of 2016’s best and most imaginiate films. It is a very sad film, but one that will stay with you and make you think about life and how you cherish and spend time with those you love in your life. Loss is inevitable, but memories and experiences shared will last as long as you live.