After decades of animated princesses and animal sidekicks, the words fairy tale tend to evoke thoughts of lessons learned and happy endings, but there is nothing Disney about this gothic tale from director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible). Lewis MacDougall stars as the young Conor, an artistic misfit caring for his single mother (Felicity Jones) as she succumbs to cancer, and Liam Neeson voices the titular tree creature who visits him every night at 12:07 a.m. The arboreal giant snatches him out of his bedroom to tell Conor a story, adding that once he’s told three, it will be Conor’s turn to look inside himself and reveal a true story of his own. “Stories are wild creatures,” Neeson growls. “When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?” And indeed, the Monster’s tales are wild: He tells Conor of vindictive sorcerers and conflicted princes, all gorgeously animated in a jaw-dropping ink-and-watercolor style. To Conor’s frustration, the Monster’s stories never wrap up neatly, instead revealing a moral ambiguity where revenge isn’t necessarily righteous, love is always messy, and the endings aren’t always happy.
The Monster’s lavish fantasy world serves as a stark contrast to Conor’s real life, and when he’s not by his mother’s side, he faces off against schoolyard bullies, retreats into his art, and struggles to connect with his cold, distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, who breathes life into an otherwise stock character). The lessons he learns about how to go on in the face of grief are a little simplistic, and the film never really makes up its mind about whether it’s for children or adults. But Bayona packs his tale with spellbinding visuals and honest emotion, and if the ending doesn’t reduce you to tears, you may be the real monster. B