As soon as I saw the trailer for A Monster Calls (2016), I was intrigued. I could see that it was going to be a fantasy with something to say, and also an opportunity to flex my rusty psychoanalysis muscles. Here is my theoretical summary. There will be spoilers.
Directed by J.A Bayona and written by Patrick Ness, (author of the same-titled book) it mingles harsh reality with the fantastic through storytelling. This film is a mixture of fantasy and melodrama with a message of grief and hope. It follows a twelve year old boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) who is trying to cope with his mother, Lizzie’s (Felicity Jones) battle with cancer. A tree monster (Liam Neeson) comes to him and promises to tell him three tales. As the tales progress, so does his mothers illness.
A Monster Calls (AMC) has somewhat foolishly been compared with Guillermo Del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth. Partly due to the fact he and Bayona are friends, and partly because both narratives feature monsters telling stories. Admittedly there are similar figures, the tree-like storyteller and, if you would excuse the pun, roots in fairytales. They have similar undertones of tragedy; however Pans Labyrinth harks to its Greek origins for inspiration – in both the monsters featured and the bloodthirsty conclusion. This is only to be expected when commenting on the Spanish Civil War. I would argue that Bayona and Ness have instead made a sub-text outside the realms of national cinema, and much closer to a mainstream Hollywood fantasy.
The New York Times wrote a scathing review of AMC for not being a monster movie. The review mistakes Conor watching King Kong (1930) as homage to the genre and a way to establish a sub-text. It is actually used as the first clue to the monster’s true identity and a nod to the films actual subject, misplaced rage.
Lizzie tells Conor that the projector belonged to his late-grandfather who used to enjoy watching monster movies. We later see the actor Liam Neeson in family photos with Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Neeson is obviously the voice talent for the monster. At the end of the film it is revealed that his mother drew the same tree monster in her sketch books. The film is clearly giving the monster the identity of Conor’s dead grandfather. Spooky.
The monster as an archetypal character is revealed to be an important figure in Conor’s imagination. This is shown when he watches a home video of his mother helping him draw one as a child. The monster they draw is in fact the tree monster/grandfather. The movie is using the classic guise of masking a transparent and unobtainable concept, like death; with a physical and graspable character. In this case it is a relatable dead grandfather spliced with a comforting creative visualisation. The grandfather is undoubtedly a metaphorical gatekeeper between death and life; reality and fantasy; youth and maturity; denial and acceptance. The placing of the tree and the grandfather in a graveyard would argue that he is predominantly there to help Conor deal with the transition of his mother’s death – however he is symbolic of much more.
The act of storytelling in any fantasy movie is there as a precursor to what the protagonist needs to overcome. It refers back to the use of fairytales in childhood and how children use them as their only relatable connection to the world around them and expectations of society. As the monster calls every evening to enlighten Conor through his tales, they begin to reflect the events surrounding Conor at the time. His wicked step-mother/grandmother figure who he initially perceives as the disruptor of their equilibrium; his absentee father who gave up his beliefs and his family for a new life; and finally Conor himself and his increasing sense of isolation. His final tale is one of honesty and accepting reality – he wants his mother to die. Not out of spite, but as the monster reassures him, out of wanting an end to pain. The tales told are also suggestive that life is not black and white, there are two sides to everything and Conor must realise this. In a fairytale there is only ever a hero and a villain, and good overcomes evil. By making the plot twists more sophisticated, Conor is able to learn that life is very much the same. Nothing is simple.
The subtext of this movie is arguably trying to deliver the message of family ties. Perhaps the tree monster is a metaphor not only for your family roots, but also about staying grounded and stable – as it has done for thousands of years. It can also be read as a coming of age film with the young protagonist finally beginning to accept his mothers death.
Either way, AMC has clear messages about family, grief and learning to navigate complex human behaviour, and it delivers that message through a talking Liam Neeson dead granddad tree. Brilliant.