A twelve-year old British lad Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is an aspiring
artist, drawing fantastical figures in his treasured notebook. But his
home life is in terrible shape. His father (Toby Kebbell) has abandoned
the family and gone to America, where he now has a new life, and his
mother Lizzy (Felicity Jones) is suffering from cancer, which a series
of treatments fail to arrest. His father comes to visit and suggests
that Conor go to join him (and his new family) across the Atlantic, but
nothing comes of it; and when Lizzy is taken off to the hospital, the
boy will have to go live with his stern, severe grandmother (Sigourney
Weaver). Conor is equally miserable at school, where a bully (James
Melville) regularly torments him.
No wonder Conor is having terrifying nightmares about the ground
opening up in the craggy field nearby, where a church stands along with
its cemetery, and swallowing Lizzy. Help of an enigmatic sort arrives
in the curious form of the huge yew tree that looms over the cemetery,
which suddenly uproots itself and comes to Conor’s window to announce, (in the voice of Liam Neeson), that it will return on the three nights
following to tell him a series of stories—after which he will be obliged
to tell the tree one of his own.
The first two tales told by the tree—which reappears each night at
precisely 12:07, a time that will obviously have special meaning by the
close—mingle Liam’s baritone with animation. In the
first, a prince tries to flee from his stepmother, a wicked witch who
hopes to marry him to retain her hold on power, after his father dies.
He takes with him the lovely girl he loves, but as they sleep beneath
the tree’s branches the girl is murdered, and the prince immediately
throws suspicion for her death on the queen. But the tale takes a
surprising turn that shocks Conor.
On the next night, the tree relates the story of a greedy apothecary
who once asked the priest of the church for permission to cut down the
yew tree so that he could use it as an ingredient in his medicines. The
priest adamantly refuses, citing his religious beliefs; but when his
own children fall ill and he needs the apothecary’s help, his faith is
tested. Once again, the story challenges the boy’s—and our—expectations
about heroism and villainy. The overarching lesson of both of the
tree’s tales is that things are never as simple as they seem, and that
one must accept the fact that life is complex.
But the images aren’t everything, of course, and when one looks
beneath the gorgeous surface, directed by J.A. Bayona ("The Impossible"), there’s less to the movie than meets the