The release of A Monster Calls marks another entry into the familiar trope of kids’ films featuring alien or ‘other’ creatures as their heroes, forming a lovable double-act with the child protagonist. Few are as monstrous as they first seem, eschewing dripping fangs or gnashing teeth, and mostly ending with the revelation that – *SPOILER ALERT* – the threatening menace isn’t so monstrous after all. We can all picture the shot: a family embracing as the alien returns to outer space, or the giant robot flies to intercept the atomic missile. Maybe they’ve reconnected as a family, or learnt something about humanity. Barriers have been broken, tears have been shed – roll credits.
This formula has made for some cracking films – and some of the most memorable duos in cinema. But why does this setup works so well, and why has it become such a reliable shorthand for so many films?
More movies than you would expect revolve around this simple formula: an outsider appears in a moment of crisis for a child. They might have lost family members, or be struggling to find their place in the world, perhaps even feeling like an outsider in their own right. But with the help of their odd new friend, a friend who others fear, they find acceptance. Who hasn’t had a moment in their life where they would have benefited from a friend like that? Take a classic example of this trope: E.T.
Let’s pray the Hollywood rebooters don’t ever come knocking for this seminal classic, which uses these now-familiar narrative conceits to blend wonder with realism, without stretching an ‘80s effects budget beyond belief. Sure, to a discerning modern eye E.T. looks like the bastard lovechild of the poop emoji and a desk lamp, but this little guy taught so many kids (Elliott included) that maybe it’s okay to be a little bit weird. You might feel alone in the playground, but out there, beyond the stars, is a funny waddling prune-worm who’s got your back – that’s heartwarming stuff.
In many of these stories, the ‘monster’ steps in as a surrogate family member for the child – replacing someone they’ve lost while helping them cope with their grief. Big Hero 6 puts this aspect front and centre, as ‘healthcare companion’ Baymax sees fit to counsel Hiro through his recent losses with the aid of crime-fighting and fistbumps – standing in as Hiro’s brother Tadashi along the way (which the film sets up through some lovely symmetries, from the aforementioned fistbumps to the heartwrenching “Tadashi is here” scene).
It isn’t solely ‘kids’ films’ that use this setup – from Terminator 2 to X-Men, misfit kids are taking outsiders as surrogate parents all over the place. Take Léon. A stranger appears after a moment of trauma? Check. Lost family members? Check. This mysterious outsider helps a child deal with her confused young emotions? Check – however twisted they go about it.
Still Luc Besson’s finest film (that doesn’t involve Chris Tucker in leopard print), Léon features stellar performances by Jean Reno and tiny ingenue Natalie Portman, as well as Gary Oldman at his best as psycho DEA agent Norman Stansfield. Here Reno’s brooding hitman becomes an unlikely father figure to Portman, counselling his charge through her grief while finding a renewed purpose in his own right. Unfortunately, this relationship, while valuable to both parties, is not built to last. Just as the outsider appears during a moment of crisis, it is inevitable that they cannot stick around in the long run – no matter how great a murder-team they make.
And so we return to the final scene: the departure of the outsider, which no film has done better than The Iron Giant. A foolish government agent has launched a nuclear strike against the lumbering automaton, after the apparent death of his new friend Hogarth has driven the robot into self-defense mode. Realising the extent of the blast radius will doom the town to share his fate, the giant makes a choice as to who he wants to be – “Superman.”
Despite critical acclaim, this Brad Bird classic may have been a box-office flop on release but has since, thankfully, found its place in the pantheon of animated greats. The Iron Giant goes toe-to-toe with the best of Disney, packing a hefty emotional punch and showing off a wonderful ‘50s sci-fi visual style – thanks to Captain America and The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston, who designed the giant itself.
Baymax, the Terminator, the Iron Giant – why does it take a robot to teach us about humanity? This is probably the most important role of the monster – sometimes it takes an outsider to show us who we are, or to make us question ourselves. The Iron Giant is the perfect utilisation of this concept, as it cleverly plays with Cold War isolationism and paranoia to explore how violence and xenophobia only leads to further violence and fear. Not that the film is wrapped up in discussing these big ideas – at the end of the day it’s about a strange and lonely boy, and his strange and lonely friend, standing together and making a choice as to who they want to be.
Identity plays a huge role in these stories – the ‘crisis’ that precedes the arrival of the monster is normally a moment of internal strife – and this is where A Monster Calls puts its own spin on this classic story. To break down how A Monster Calls plays with this narrative convention would be a disservice to the movie itself, which is best seen without prior knowledge of the film’s unexpected thematic twists and turns – but it is worth noting that A Monster Calls is a rare story about grief and loss that takes place before the child has actually lost the family member in question – and so the monster’s role becomes something quite different.
A Monster Calls follows in the footsteps of E.T. and the others on this list to tell a beautiful, tear-jerking story about grief and childhood that should warm even the coldest of hearts. Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and newcomer Lewis MacDougall offer incredible performances as a family being torn apart by an impending loss, and this is the best Liam Neeson has been in a decade, as he delivers a vocal performance that is as mysterious and sinister as the ‘monster’ he is bringing to life. Credit is certainly due to director J.A. Bayona for his storytelling techniques and spectacular visual surprises, including a mesmerising run of watercolour sequences that could be movies themselves.
It is revealing that the ‘monster’ so often takes on a parental role – Spielberg has said that E.T. is partially inspired by his childhood after his parents’ divorce – and frankly a little disappointing that so few of these movies tell stories about young women finding kinship with fellow outsiders. For every orphan Sophie and the BFG, there are half-a-dozen young boys finding a new gruff monster-dad, and this is another reason why A Monster Calls stands out from the pack, repurposing classic tropes to tell a different story altogether.