Princes and princesses. A wicked queen. A hermit apothecary who lives on the outskirts of town. Happily ever after. These are the building blocks of many fairy tales and bedtime stories. But in the stories told in “A Monster Calls,” things are rarely what they seem, and happily ever after is not so easily achieved, if at all.
Every night, as the clock strikes 12:07, young Conor O’Malley is visited by a monster. Large and tree-shaped, the monster towers over him, his voice booming into the night. He shares three stories with Conor, each passing knowledge along about the ways of the world and helping him to cope with the increasing severity of his mother’s cancer. “A Monster Calls,” based on a book by Patrick Ness, is a captivating, visually stunning film with gorgeous watercolor-esque, animated sequences and breathtaking effects that truly bring the monster to life. Yet above all of the cinematographic prowess the film boasts, what makes “A Monster Calls” stand out most are its raw emotional drive and brutal honesty about issues like terminal illness, divorce, bullying, and grief.
The monster and his stories lull the audience into the realm of the magical and otherworldly and use that childlike world to force us to confront reality. While we’d rather believe in the happy ending (in this case, that Conor’s mom will beat her cancer and be okay, or that he’ll come to the United States to live with his father), unfortunately, the truth is often much less pleasant. Coming to terms with reality can be uncomfortable, but ignoring the truth, particularly painful truths like the inevitable loss of a loved one, can often cause more pain and heartache. This is the lesson that the monster teaches Conor, albeit sometimes with more of a “tough love” approach than one would typically expect from a talking tree who shares bedtime stories.
The monster’s stories, however, do reinforce the hard lesson that life isn’t always tied up with a neat little bow the way we might hope. The stories that the monster tells are not fairy tales where the hero is just and rewarded, and the villain is wicked and punished. Sometimes, it’s up to Conor himself (and the audience, of course) to decide which characters the hero and villain even are.
In the monster’s fables, there often isn’t a “happily ever after.” Instead, as Conor’s father explains to him, the stories illustrate how “that’s life — most of us just get ‘messily ever after,’ and that’s alright.” This is certainly not an easy idea to confront, but it is an important one. Life doesn’t always work out perfectly, and beyond that, it’s not the end of the world when things don’t turn out exactly as we planned. Rather than lose hope when our plans fall through and our “happily ever after” collapses, we must instead face tough times head-on and make the best of the situations we’ve been given. Will it be easy? Absolutely not. But can we do it? Yes, we most definitely can.