There are stories that can make the transition from allegory on the page to a movie, and there are those that cannot; count this among the latter. Patrick Ness adapts his own illustrated novel about a boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who is living with his cancer-stricken single mother (Felicity Jones), and who is visited in the night by a mysterious creature in the form of a giant anthropomorphic yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). Director J.A. Bayona effectively re-creates the style of Jim Kay’s book illustrations and more than a few stunning visuals of his own, and gets a strong performance from MacDougall as a boy wrestling with fear and anger over his mother’s illness. But the structure of the book as a literary fable allows Ness to get away with a feature-length therapy session, where putting those same elements on a big screen does not. Many viewers will undoubtedly be moved to tears by its child’s-eye-view approach to processing grief; I might have joined them if it hadn’t felt like this movie was cutting onions beneath my chin to extract those tears.
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