Arts movie review

Tales of misunderstood witches

Unconventional fairy tales teach us to think critically about how we judge others

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(L-R) Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is shadowed by The Monster (performed and voiced by Liam Neeson) in J.A. Bayona’s visually spectacular and stunningly emotional drama A MONSTER CALLS, a Focus Features release.
Focus Features


A Monster Calls

Directed by J.A. Bayona

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall

Rated PG-13

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Ironically, in A Monster Calls, a monster tries to help a boy manage his anger. The monster tells the boy (Lewis MacDougall) stories with twists at the end to teach him that people aren’t always who we think they are at first, and we should reserve our anger and judgment.

The monster, made from a massive tree, twigs, and branches, periodically grabs the boy, Conor, out of his bed.  He then forces Conor to listen to fairy tales. The fairy tales often have counterintuitive lessons, such as “even witches merit saving.”  This story involves a prince whose princess is seemingly poisoned by the witch. In reality, the prince himself poisoned his own lover, and framed the witch, so he could rise to power. Each story urges Conor to have compassion, and think twice before judging others.

Conor uses these lessons to understand how to interact with the people around him. He confronts his father about his absence from his life, his grandmother about her over-presence in his life, and his bully about his cruelty. Each step of the way, the monster’s stories guide him.

The monster, ultimately, teaches Conor how to try to cope with his mother’s terminal illness. The word “cancer,” however, never appears in the movie.

“I didn’t want the word ‘cancer’ to be mentioned,” said script writer Patrick Ness in an interview with The Tech. “Because it’s like what nobody is talking about with Conor. Nobody is telling him exactly what is going on, even though we all know what is going on.”

When Conor’s mother is on her deathbed, she tells him: “If you need to break things, by god, you break them.”

“That was the kind of thing that as a child I was desperate for,” Ness says. “For someone just to say something other than ‘you’ll grow out of it.’”

The movie is about coping with grief, but it is also about empathy.  In one scene, Conor destroys every item in his grandmother’s pristine room full of antiques, in an act of rebellion against being forced to live in her house. She comes in, sees the wreckage, and leaves without saying a word. Conor initially struggles to have empathy for his grandmother, he realizes after this incident that she is just as grief-struck about her daughter’s illness as he is.

“Never let your opinion calcify so much that you cannot perform empathy,” warned Ness. “Which is the great thing that fiction does, obviously. It shows you another experience and it allows you to be empathetic.”

Conor regularly escapes into the world of the monster’s fairy tales. The fairy tales are depicted in vivid, colorful, watercolor-like artwork, reminiscent of Kubo and the Two Strings.

“I was picturing nothing nearly that good,” said Ness, commenting on the movie’s graphics. “I have a prose imagination. I’m all words, words, words, words, words. So, to have somebody who could talk in pictures — take my scribblings and suggestions and figure out what it is I wanted and make something better out of them — that’s a hell of a thing.”

Initially, the movie was written as a children’s book. “The book is not going to be erased by the movie,” Ness had to tell himself when re-adapting the book into a movie. “It’s like the first Ghostbusters wasn’t erased by the second Ghostbusters, so calm down.”

Ultimately, Conor learns to manage his anger. “Not let go of it, but manage it,” Ness clarifies. “And that’s okay — to learn to live happily within a mess. It’s human. And when we learn that is when we stop being children, I think.”

At the end of the movie, the monster forcibly dangles Conor off the edge of a cliff until he understands and tells his own truthful story. Ness emphasizes the importance of future writers telling their own story.

“Your story is important to tell because you want to tell it. That’s the only permission you ever, ever need.”

Ness has another tip for aspiring writers.

“I have one of those irritating sayings that writers have — ‘Real writers don’t write — they write anyway.’ I didn’t think I would be able to publish a book, but I wrote one anyway. I didn’t think I would get a movie made, but I wrote one anyway.”

The illustrations in A Monster Calls are enchanting — colorful and mystical, like the illustrations out of your favorite children’s book. The monster’s fairy tales break out of the cliched into the profound, while the main plotline is heart-wrenching. Each fairy tale offers a life lesson in empathy. Although few may empathize with Conor’s terror and fear in childhood, it’s hard not to empathize with his reactions to the injustices occurring all around him. Though the movie may at times be overly-sentimental, it is a should-see for those craving beauty and comfort and those who enjoy new twists on old fairy tales.