In this hybrid of fantastical fairy tale and coming-of-age drama, we meet young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who lives in a rainy English village. A solemn voice-over tells us: “It begins with a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man … and a nightmare.”
The obvious nightmare is the one Conor has about a giant fearsome tree attacking him in his sleep. Then, in real life, there are the kids bullying him at school, where he’s persecuted for being a moody, artistic type. But the worst thing happening is that his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) is terminally ill.
In a curious form of being helpful, the tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) snatches Conor periodically from his bedroom and makes him listen to instructional fairy tales. These stories are rendered in watercolor-y animation, and it takes Conor nearly the whole film to grasp their import. The tree also demands a story from Conor, though ultimately what then happens is more of a revelation of truth than a fairy tale.
And speaking of storytelling, perhaps this well-meaning film’s biggest problem is that its disparate elements don’t gel properly. (Another problem is the woefully miscast Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s uptight grandmother.) The how and why of the monster is unclear; it’s real, but then also a not-real manifestation of something subconscious. The tales are charming, but they bump up weirdly against the underdeveloped bullying scenes. MacDougall is quite good in a tough role, but then some of the CGI is clunky enough to yank viewers right out of any emotional state.
Given its subject matter, this is going to be a hanky-required film, though how moved one is might depend on one’s tolerance for manipulation. It’s nominally a family movie, albeit gloomy and sad throughout. Probably not really a film most kids would want to sit through, unless they are pre-goth and like a good cry.