This American fantasy film is based on the illustrated book of the same name by Patrick Ness who wrote the screenplay for the movie. It tells the story of a giant tree who visits a boy to comfort him, when his mother is terminally ill.
The mother (Felicity Jones) of 12-yr. old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is dying of cancer. Conor is bullied at school, and acutely feels the impending loss of his beloved mother, and he is plagued by a recurring nightmare about her that terrifies him. He dreams all the time that he is in a graveyard with the yew tree, a sinkhole takes his mother away, and there is nothing he can do about it. In his dreams, the yew tree comes to life. Very early one morning (at 12.07am., and always at the same time, thereafter) he is visited by a huge fire-breathing monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) that is transformed from the old yew tree that grows behind his house. The monster comes to comfort him. Conor wishes his mother to die, because then she will have no pain, but he can’t bear to be without her, and he is in crisis. The tree tells Conor that he will tell Conor three stories, but he expects a fourth story in return that must reveal the meaning of Conor’s nightmare. The tree will only tell his three stories if Conor agrees to tells his own story truthfully.
The monsters’ stories are all morality tales, and each tale conveys a different lesson. The stories involve death, the offer of help that is refused, and the threat of punishment, and they illustrate paradoxes which must be solved in Conor’s own life. Conor is angry and can’t deal with his sorrow. His mother knows she can’t help him, and his father (Toby Kebbell) can’t help either – he has remarried and lives too far away. After hearing the monster’s stories, Conor finally gets the courage to tell his own story. He tells the monster that he dreams all the time that he let his mother go, when he shouldn’t have, and that makes him guilty and desperately unhappy.
After Conor’s mother dies, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who is stern and controlling, gives him his mother’s old room. He finds there his Mother’s art book which contains the monster’s stories. He realises that his mother knew the tree monster, and the monster is guiding him to a truth that he had decided to deny. The truth is that he felt powerless to protect his mother, and although he felt the injustice of her illness, he knows that he must develop the courage to endure.
This film deals with loss, sadness and grief in a young child with devastating emotional impact. It blends fantasy with harsh reality in a deeply moving way that engenders compassion, love, and understanding, but these positive features come at the emotional cost of sharply sharing a vulnerable child’s pain. The film is visually spectacular and brilliantly acted by Lewis MacDougall as Conor. It is almost impossible not to feel Conor’s sadness as he grieves for his dying mother.
The movie uses its imagery to bear down relentlessly on sickness, grief and death. The animation is excellent and the monster’s three stories are vividly communicated in watercolour. The animation beautifully supports the intimacy of the storyline, and Liam Neeson’s monster is terrific. The film’s direction by the Spanish Director (J. A. Bayona) clearly shows a strong influence of Bayona’s past association with the famed fantasy Director, Guillermo Del Toro.
This is a visually inventive piece of fantasy cinema with outstanding visual effects, but it is highly emotional in its impact. Pitched to the young, it is far better suited to adults who are willing to talk to their children about loss. On the face of it, this film is about family bonding, but it is much less about hope and healing, than it is about grieving and letting go, and that will make some children anxious. This wonderful film is only for children with a “guiding” adult sitting right next to them.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting