Maybe a film can be too imaginative? How else to explain the disappointing commercial response to this wondrous terror-of-childhood dreamscape pic? Or was it doomed by an undeserved/ misguided PG-13 rating? Or simply lost in a tide of similar stories of young kids coping in unique ways with a terminal illness in the family? Whatever the case, the film is too good to miss, even with a couple of miscues that leave the film with an unexpected emotional reserve. (Maybe not a bad thing, that.) Young Lewis MacDougall is outstanding as the inward-looking, artistically talented 9-yr-old, acting out at home & bullied at school as he deals with his increasingly sick mom. Raging against the inevitable, he’s equally hurt by his divorced dad’s wayward attention (living in the States with a new family) and fighting tooth-and-nail against moving in with Grandma Sigourney Weaver (treading warily on a light British accent). Into this emotional mess, the boy, thru dreams & drawings, conjures up a living tree-monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), an alternating messenger of terror, comfort & confounding teaching-fables. Three fables, to be exact, appearing with the inevitability of the Dickensian spirits Marley told Scrooge of, but shown as enticingly beautiful animation. (A digital process with the look of a living watercolor, a marvel to behold.) This leads up to a fourth fable, told not by the imaginary tree-beast, but by the boy; a tale of uncompromising (and devastating) honesty, topped by a final revelation that both closes and expands the circle of life. It leaves you not in tears, but in dry-eyed wonder.
DOUBLE-BILL: Director J. A. Bayona is Spanish, though he’s been working internationally for a few years, now. This may explain why the film brings Guillermo del Toro (with an English accent) to mind. Less the hyperventilating fantasy world of PAN’S LABYRINTH/’06, than the under-appreciated youthful terrors of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE/’01.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Listen up during the second tale when Fernando Velázquez’s fine score tips its hat with a brief allusion to Mussorgsky’s NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN in honor of its debt toward FANTASIA’s satanic mountain monster.