'The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet'
Few tones in all of filmmaking are more difficult to pull off than whimsy. One of the few directors who has managed to master that cutesy craft is Jean-Pierre Jeunet. (His ‘Amélie’ is the cinematic equivalent of a warm embrace.) Unfortunately, even major talents have bad days, and Jeunet’s long overdue ‘The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet’ represents one of his worst.
Though beautiful to behold in isolated passages, the film is nauseatingly whimsical. Jeunet leans way too hard on the charm button and spoils his soufflé. The movie is based on a popular children’s book that was created to resemble a child’s diary overstuffed with trinkets, sketches and observations. I’ll freely admit to never having read this book. However, based purely on what I’ve seen, the movie is at least an accurate presentation of overcooked childishness.
Kyle Catlett stars as the precocious title character, a boy genius whose lovably eccentric family just doesn’t get him. His father (Callum Keith Rennie) is a quiet cowboy with all that implies. His loving mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is a motor-mouthed insect expert, and his sister (Niamh Wilson) is a snarky teen. Together, they form an endearing dysfunctional family that shares a secret: There was once another son who loved nothing more than shooting things and accidentally shot himself. The family never speaks of what happened, but each member grieves in his or her own private way. T.S.’s method is the most productive: He throws himself into science experiments and eventually gets invited to the Smithsonian for inventing a perpetual motion machine. Rather than tell a family who would never believe him about this achievement, he embarks on a cross-country journey to get there on his own.
You might now ask yourself why he would do such a thing. Well, to make this a road movie, silly! It allows Jeunet’s luxuriously employed 3D cameras to follow the boy across the vast plains of the United States (it’s actually clearly Canada, but shhh!) and meet up with a series of oddballs who teach him a little something about life. It’s kind of sweet, until he finally gets to Washington, where he’s hooked up with a meddling Smithsonian employee (the much-missed Judy Davis) and a smarmy TV host (Rick Mercer) for some awkward satire on media manipulation. That last chuck is the least successful portion of the movie, but not because it’s particularly bad on its own – more because this overstuffed movie of digressions wears out its welcome long before then. It’s particularly tedious to sit through that section once you realize this episode of the story is going to stretch out into an entire third act.
It must be said that Jean-Pierre Jeunet does quite a bit right in the ‘The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet’, even though it’s probably his worst movie to date. The film is visually astounding. Jeunet’s flowing camerawork and cartoon stylizations suit the child’s eye perspective of the world that his movie courts beautifully. In particular, his use of 3D is wonderfully creative, using varying planes of visual depth to peer into his protagonist’s imagination like a thought balloon in a Sunday funny. There’s no denying that the technical accomplishments of this film are extraordinary and that the director has come up with some ingenious applications for 3D visuals that have never been seen before. Unfortunately, the story contained in those visuals is nowhere near as stimulating or satisfying.
‘The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet’ is ultimately a very simple coming-of-age story about grief and escape through imagination. However, this movie presents that story in far too grand and overblown ways for its sincere heart to connect meaningfully. Jeunet hammers home every quirk and emotional beat so hard that it’s exhausting to sit through the experience. For all his cute little visual ideas, there are countless times when viewers will be overcome with the desire to shout out at the screen, “We get it already! Stop this madness!” He also encourages all of his actors to embrace their exaggerated characters through big and broad performances. Some of them work, but most of them are much too much.
As a result, the film feels almost unbearably quirky and manipulative. It’s a prime example of too much of a good thing. There are many moments in Jeunet’s grand family film folly that are an absolute joy to experience, but the collective excess is unbearable.