It's an issue that also affects The Lovely Bones. Is Peter Jackson's interpretation of Alice Sebold's acclaimed / overrated novel (delete as applicable) a spiritually uplifting tale of the redeeming power of love or just overblown and slightly annoying? Ignoring the CGI afterlifefor a moment or two, the main story is at least an unusual one. It focuses on a 14-year old girl called Susie Salmon (Ronan), who's murdered by a neighbour (Tucci) on her way home from school. Susie then spends the next few years in limbo, watching over her family while her killer remains free.
As you'd imagine, Susie's death is devastating to those left behind. Her father (Wahlberg) seeks solace in the investigation, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery (guided, as much as she's able, by Susie), while her mother (Weisz) slowly crumbles, unable to cope with her grief, her husband's mania or even her other children. Susie rapidly realises that for her family to survive and move past their grief and trauma, she must move on, a difficult decision given the circumstances and her own desire for vengeance. It's an interesting balance and, on that score, a highly successful one. Indeed, as one who was underwhelmed by the book, the strength of emotion here, particularly the relationship between father and daughter, is beautifully handled. Wahlberg seems to improve with every film while Ronan is shaping up to be an exceptional actress. Tucci, too, is excellent (but when isn't he?), bravely playing against type and investing the homicidal neighbour with a terrifying ordinariness.
The problem then is more the running time. The fractured marriage, the effect Susie's disappearance has on her friends and siblings, the relationship between the family and the investigating officer (Imperioli) all feel rushed - and quite what drew Susan Sarandon to a mostly pointless five minute cameo as the hard-drinking grandmother is baffling. Yes, the heart of the story is Susie's narration and that paternal bond but the echoes through other lives, the connections made, are the "bones" of the title and their relative absence is disappointing and leaves the film uneven. As for the CGI interpretation of the afterlife, yes, some will feel unsettled because any hint of spirituality seems to do that to cinema audiences. However Jackson avoids all religious symbolism making Susie's limbo a very personal, 14-year old female thing, and it's hard not to be touched, even if some of the imagery (big trees, rolling hills, dramatic coastlines, etc) comes from central, er, scenery.
All told though, while certainly flawed, this is mostly a fine and moving drama and worthwhile just for Ronan's impeccable performance.