So here we have yet another adaptation of a children's book that you could be mistaken for thinking was a light-hearted fantasy romp...but it sooo isn't. Certainly the movies poster looks very fairytale-esque and the plot sounds very quaint and whimsical, but prepare for a shock. Not a horrible shock, just a slightly glum, depressing and slow burning shock.
This tale focuses on the young lad, Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall), growing up in the north of England (I'm guessing in Lancashire?) with his strict grandmother, estranged father and terminally ill mother. Obviously there is a lot of emotion in this young boys life with his father now living in the US with another woman and his mother slowly dying. On top of all that his future looks glum as he will soon be living with his grandmother whom he does not get on with, oh and he gets bullied at school (Jesus!).
Well one night, around 12.07 am, an old gnarly tree at the back of his house starts to transform into a huge living entity, a tree-like monster. The monster approaches and confronts a very afraid Conor telling him that at the same time, over a period of time, he will tell him three true stories from the past. Once these stories have been told Conor must then tell the creature a true story of his own. Now of course its not hard to realise that these three stories will in fact reflect the boys life in parts, they will be windows into his emotions. Of course the real question the movie makes you ask is whether or not this tree monster is in fact a real creature or merely the boys wild imagination.
The first story is of an old King who marries a young beautiful woman suspected of being a witch. The King soon dies and his people suspect the Queen of killing him in order to gain power. The Queen actually rules well but plots to marry off the Kings only Prince so she can retain power. The Prince runs away with a farm girl until such time that he can return and be crowned King. One morning the Prince awakens to find the young farm girl murdered, naturally the Prince assumes the Queen killed her so he rallies the people against her. Just before the mob can reach the Queen the tree creature whisks her away to safety. The Queen did not kill the King or the farm girl, nor was she a specifically bad witch. Twas the Prince who killed the farm girl in order to try and overthrow the young Queen and gain power.
This story relates to Conor's grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) in the sense that while she is strict and kinda unlikable, she has never actually done anything wrong in regards to Conor. She has actually looked after him very well and Conor is failing to understand her situation under the current circumstances. Much like the Queen who didn't actually do anything wrong, people believed she was evil and thought she would commit evil, but she did not.
The second story revolves around an old apothecary who believed in traditional medicines and potions, herbs and brews etc...In order to make up more medicines the apothecary pesters the local parson to cut down a Yew tree within the church yard. The parson refuses this request point blank and becomes fed up with the apothecary. The parson does not agree with the apothecaries traditional ways and slowly manages to turn his congregation against the old medicine man. Some time later the Parsons two children becomes very ill and nothing can help, so he turns to the apothecary. Of course the apothecary asks why he should help him after he took away all his custom and refused the Yew tree for which to make cures. The parson agrees to cut down the tree and bring his congregation back, the apothecary declines and the parson's children die. The tree creature appears and destroys the parson's house as punishment. The reason being the the apothecary stuck to his beliefs and could have saved lives, the parson changed his beliefs to suit himself, convenience.
This story may relate to Conor's estranged father in regards to him choosing an easy path, much like the pastor. Conor's father has basically left his mother and is enjoying life in America whilst they carry on the daily grind in the UK. He obviously comes back when Conor's mother is ill but it doesn't seem genuine, more of a reluctant duty, changing his position to suit himself. But he obviously cares enough to come back, he cares enough for his son, so I'm unsure on this one. I was also surprised that Conor didn't really receive any punishment for destroying his grandmothers living room (which he does in a trance like state when the creature describes destroying the parson's house). I was also surprised that this event didn't result in Conor getting some psychological assistance.
The third story was about an invisible man who grew tired of people not seeing him. So the man summoned the tree creature to make him visible. The tree creature helps the man but he soon discovers there are harder things in life than people not seeing or noticing you. Whilst this story is being told the tree creature possesses Conor and beats up the school bully. Again I'm not so sure about this one, could it be the creature is the invisible man in the story? The creature realises that being invisible isn't as hard as it thought, only after it beats the bully too much? Does it represent Conor feeling unnoticed during his life? Is it me or did there seem to be a homosexual vibe between the bully and Conor?
The final story that Conor must tell involves him confronting his own nightmare...or face being eaten by the tree creature. Conor's mother is standing near a cliff when it starts to collapse in on itself. His mother falls but Conor reaches her in time, grabbing her by the hand. Conor must hang on to his mother to prevent her from falling to her death. After a short time Conor is seemingly unable to hold on anymore and his mother falls. The tree creature puts a lot of pressure on Conor to speak the truth regarding the incident and eventually Conor admits he let his mother go on purpose. Why? because he could not stand the pain of having to hold on. He can no longer stand the suffering of watching his mother slowly die in reality, he wants the emotional pain to finally end. Conor does not want his mother to die, but he understands it will happen, he must come to accept it and ultimately he wants/needs the whole ordeal to end.
All of the story sequences appear to have been animated in watercolours to me. While all of the film is live action with the tree creature being CGI, these sequences do stand out beautifully with this fresh approach. They certainly give the film some much needed colour and excitement because truth be told there is little else going on. That's not to say the film is poor, its a slow moving drama set in the bleak countryside of Lancashire so the animated sequences are vital. Truth be told the stories are kinda odd and don't really make much sense in relation to the main protagonist. They are suppose to represent the stages of Conor's early life and emotional state but I didn't see the connection at times. The second story I especially didn't really agree with. Sure I understand that the parson didn't stick by his beliefs and in the end it was his own fault that the apothecary didn't have any possible cures at the right time. But Jesus man, talk about being harsh on this guy even after his kids die!
At times the film is visually alluring, as said the story sequences, and of course whenever the tree creature pops up. You have this blend of gritty reality in England mixed with moments that could have come from a twisted fairytale flick of Tim Burton. Essentially this is a character driven feature and its all about the performances. Well our main protagonist Lewis MacDougall certainly acts the shit outta this. While I did find his scowling somewhat annoying and his character did come across as a bit of an unhinged brat, this young actor is most certainly one to watch for the future. I couldn't quite relate to him mainly because I didn't really like the character of Conor but that doesn't detract from his acting talent.
On the flip side you have the voice talent of Liam Neeson as the tree creature. Sterling decision it has to be said because Neeson's voice, when lowered, has that perfect tone to make you slowly drift off to sleep. His voice fits the creature perfectly giving the character some real depth and gravitas. Which was needed because even though the creature appears to be faithful to the book, it looks a bit Lord of the Rings-esque really doesn't it, hard not to think it. The design is definitely nice, just a bit late in the game really, also it did look weird having this yuge twisted gnarly tree all by its lonesome behind this house. It looked like the old tree from 'Sleepy Hollow'. Not sure why they decided to cast Sigourney Weaver as a British grandmother, strange.
Certainly the themes here are very strong, very emotional at times and frankly way beyond most kids comprehension methinks. I haven't read the book so I can't compare the material. Personally I can't see any kids really enjoying or understanding this and its, dare I say, bleak sobering lessons of reality. But hey what do I know about kids these days. But I won't lie, the film is a bit of a slog at times, there is a whole heap of family drama in here that moves slowly. If you're not overly familiar with the British lifestyle then you may feel even more in the dark at times because this is definitely British. All in all, saying this is a coming of age story is an understatement. This film could leave youngsters emotional wrecks as it exposes the bare bones of early childhood experiences. High drama and at times high fantasy, which kinda goes nowhere really. Overall it will leave you with mixed emotions and probably some questions, but the ending will see you reaching for a hanky.