Patrick Ness adapted his own novel, and the fact that it used to be a novel is evident in that this story is about telling stories, a common literary theme. Of course, there are plenty of films in which one character verbally tells a story to another, or where one character reads a book to another. Usually, those are just brief scenes or framework for something powerful in and of itself or that can stand alone. An example is The NeverEnding Story (1984). A more recent example is Pete’s Dragon (2016), a summer film about a boy who befriends a large monster, which is a more apt comparison to this film. Except, instead of a large, flying dragon, which was the object in The NeverEnding Story as well, the monster in this adaptation of Ness’ book is a large, walking-and-talking tree.
One can hear about an anthropomorphized tree and think of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) or one can think of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). That 2014 film is probably the one to consider as both this film and Guardians of the Galaxy have at their centers a boy dealing with his mother’s pending death. Guardians of the Galaxy opens with that death and then quickly moves on to become a popcorn-like and pop culture-referencing, roller-coaster ride. This film instead draws or stretches that pending death over the course of two hours.
As such, this movie really is a sobering look at how a child deals with an impending death. In this specific case, it’s a child whose mother has cancer, one that doesn’t respond to any kind of medicine, so her death is imminent. This movie puts us right into the shoes of the young boy having to reconcile his feelings in this experience wherein he has to accept it and know that there’s nothing he can do but accept it, despite the pain, the hurt and fear.
It’s probably better told in Ness’ book. Here, it is well-acted on the part of the cast, which includes Lewis MacDougall as Conor O’Malley, the 12-year-old Irish boy in question, Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything and Rogue One) who plays the cancer-stricken mother, Lizzie Clayton, Sigourney Weaver (Alien and Avatar) who plays the strict grandmother and Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Ben-Hur) who plays Conor’s distant father. It’s unfortunate that when it comes to films about children dealing with death or life-threatening situations, often through fantastical beings, this film is perhaps too on-the-nose or not fantastical enough.
Even though they’re not perfect, the aforementioned Pete’s Dragon, which is a remake and even Steven Spielberg’s The BFG balance the fantasy and the frankness. It’s probably due to neither film dwelling in Lizzie’s mortality and Conor’s moroseness. The film here does dwell and is perhaps too sullen. Even the comic style of Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List and Taken) who voices the tree monster can’t lift this film’s spirits. He’s too deadpan.
The direction from J.A. Bayona was fine. Bayona is a Spanish filmmaker who worked with Guillermo del Toro on the hit horror film, The Orphanage (2007). He’s since worked with del Toro on other projects, which is funny because it feels like this film is Bayona trying to do Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), another film about a child dealing with a life-threatening situation through interacting with fantastical beings. Sadly, Bayona doesn’t quite rise to the level of del Toro’s Oscar-winning film.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.