The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival
Credit: Quim Vives​

There have been many thinkpieces ruminating over the downfall of movies in 2016, but A Monster Calls may be one of the rare cases to lift audiences out of this slump. The film, directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible), screened for press at the Toronto International Film Festival, and early reactions are already pegging this as one of the year’s finest.

A Monster Calls is based on the book of the same name and flaunts an impressive cast, but the soul of the story lies with the young Lewis MacDougall and his gut-wrenching portrayal of life after loss.

Twelve-year-old Conor (MacDougall) goes to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who’s less than sympathetic to his mother’s (Felicity Jones) fatal illness. This tragic time is made more unbearable by the bullies he faces every day at school. In his hour of need, a gargantuan tree-like beast (voiced and acted via performance capture by Liam Neeson) emerges and weaves together fantastical stories to help guide the boy. Toby Kebbell (Fantastic Four) also features as Conor’s distant father.

Before the film is released for the masses, beginning with a limited release on Dec. 23, read early reactions of the film from TIFF below.

“Patrick Ness’s screenplay, adapted from his own 2011 book, hits the emotional notes required by an illness-centered family drama with grace (Jones gets a particularly good sickbed speech, and delivers it beautifully), but also shows finesse in playing this side of the film against its fantasy. Surprised when his grief-fueled outbursts of violence aren’t punished by parents or principals, Conor is asked more than once, ‘What could possibly be the point?’ The fact that not every terrible thing can be remedied or appropriately punished is a tough lesson even for adults to learn, but A Monster Calls helps find the sense in it.”

Steve Pond (The Wrap)

“J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls is a kids’ movie on the surface with very adult concerns not far below — one part The BFG, two parts Pan’s Labyrinth. The story of a young boy shaken out of his troubled life through encounters with an enormous and fantastical creature, it tries hard to simultaneously be exciting, emotional and magical. And while it doesn’t always manage to nail that tricky trifecta, it provides a number of touching moments and a behemoth to remember. And at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday and Saturday, it drew more than a few tears, just as it no doubt will in every other theater where it plays.”

Eric Kohn (IndieWire)

“J.A. Bayona nailed the manipulative power of filmmaking with his brilliant debut, the elegant and creepy 2007 horror film The Orphanage. He shifted modes, with far less satisfying results, in 2012’s The Impossible, a mawkish portrait of white survivors in the Indonesian tsunami. For his third feature — and the last before he upgrades to the blockbuster arena to tackle the sequel to Jurassic World — Bayona finds a satisfying balance between his first two efforts, juggling the elements of a gothic fairy tale with the more straightforward beats of a sentimental cancer drama.”

Adam Chitwood (Collider)

“Plenty of bad movies can illicit tears with just the right music cue. In this grief drama with a touch of fantasy (think Pan’s Labyrinth), director J.A. Bayona proves wholly adept at crafting a tale of genuine emotion that is packed with imagination and sincerity, offering up a strangely cathartic fairy tale of sorts that never lets the fantasy overwhelm the character drama.”

Linda Holmes (NPR)

“It is a tear-jerker, in the final analysis. I have a few rules for evaluating movies where I cry (as I did here), and one of them is that I feel better about the complexity of a film’s sentiments when I cry not only at the saddest moments, but also at moments of forgiveness and generosity and grace. A Monster Calls passed that test. Bring some tissues.”

Bryan Bishop (The Verge)

“I’m going out of my way to avoid giving away too much plot detail beyond the initial setup, but if there’s any major criticism of the film to be had, it’s that it may be a little too effective at hitting its emotional beats. At times it goes beyond just telling a moving story, and practically bathes in sentiment, morphing into a kind of cinematic catharsis porn. But if that’s a fault, in this case it can be considered a welcome one. J.A. Bayona has created an unforgettable, emotional experience with A Monster Calls, one that lets us grapple with our most basic human fears and worries, while lighting a beacon of hope that can shine through that darkness.”

Angie Han (/Film)

“The film’s refreshing honesty makes up for a lot of its less subtle manipulations. Bayona is so good at wringing tears that it becomes a bit exhausting, and much of the dialogue consists of characters simply spelling out the movie’s themes. But even then, it’s hard to deny his methods are effective. If you’re in the mood for emotional catharsis, A Monster Calls is one of the weepiest experiences I’ve had at the theater this year. Bring tissues, more than you think you’ll need. Bring some extra for your neighbor in case they forget. Then sit back and let the waterworks flow.”

Justin Chang (The L.A. Times)

A Monster Calls isn’t exactly subtle entertainment; it articulates its themes with a directness that younger audiences will especially take to heart. But what sounds on paper like Pan’s Labyrinth by way of Terms of Endearment turns out to be an altogether more exquisite and affecting experience than that crude formulation suggests. For all its forays into the fantastical, the movie is richly grounded in its workaday British setting, and the three primary adult actors — Jones, Sigourney Weaver as Connor’s unsmiling grandmother and Toby Kebbell as his geographically distant dad — do fine work as adult family members who struggle to provide Connor with the emotional support he needs.”

Matthew Jacobs (The Huffington Post)

“Unfortunately, the monster’s little yarns are not that compelling. Each feels like a further diversion from the core story. We are denied crucial time with the characters, left with miniature films whose Very Important Messages the creature defines in blunt terms. It kills some of the impact of the metaphor, the idea that a childlike imagination can taper our woes. Conor doesn’t want to hear these stories, so by the time he’s fed their significance, the audience is manipulated into heartache for a character nearing her death bed. Yet A Monster Calls pulls itself together by the end.”

A Monster Calls
  • Movie
  • 108 minutes