Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published October 19th 2014
An ode to the power of imagination
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, Micmacs) Cast: Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Caullum Keith Rennie
With every film he makes, it looks less likely that Jean-Pierre Jeunet will ever recapture the magic he created with Amelie. Sadly, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet continues the pattern. The look of heightened realism is there again, and individual scenes are quite wonderful, but like its titular character, having great ideas is one thing, developing them into a functioning physical whole is quite a different kettle of fish.
T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) with his entomoligist Mum (Helena Bonham Carter)
T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is indeed young and prodigious. The 10-year old has an unusually furtive imagination which allows the equally inventive Jeunet to play around with the kind of arresting knick-knacks he's famous for. For the first time he also gets to apply his unique gifts to 3D technology. The results are reminiscent of Hugo, which isn't surprising considering the same stereographer was used for both films.
The bad news for T.S. Spivet is his ingenious inventions go largely unnoticed and unrewarded by those around him. His less accomplished science teacher holds a green-eyed grudge against him, his non-communicative father (Callum Keith Rennie) feels less comfortable being with his family than he does out tending to their Montana farm, and while his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) loves him dearly, she's pre-occupied with the disintegration of the family unit after the death of T.S.'s twin brother, Layton.
As with all Jeunet films, the camera heightens reality
Left to his own abundant devices, T.S. cheerfully knocks up a perpetual motion machine which earns him an award from the Smithsonian Museum. With his parents unaware of his achievement, and the Museum equally oblivious to his age, the spirited lad arranges the cross-country rail journey to receive his award.
As the film morphs into a road-trip movie, the visual and narrative playfulness continues. There's certainly plenty of flair on display. Catlett does an astonishing job of breathing heart and soul into the main character when it would have been easy for him to get lost among the film's relentless quirkiness and whimsy. It'll be interesting to see if he translates his considerable talents into adulthood. Bonham Carter is also tremendous as his supportive but distracted mother.
The final reel isn't quite so endearing or engaging. Despite its charms, there just isn't enough emotional weight in the script to hold interest in the resolution. It doesn't help that the character of the Smithsonian's undersecretary, G.H. Jibson, is drawn in such broad strokes. Judy Davis is such an outrageously talented actor, but so often is directed, or allowed, to overact appallingly. Here it's like she's in a completely different film.
Ultimately, this is another example of great technical achievement from Jeunet, who's very good at assembling a pleasing array of bells and whistles. Dramatically, this works for a while, but fails to bring the sum of its brightly coloured parts to an emotionally satisfying whole. I know it's a lot to ask for, but I'm still hopeful he'll produce a worthy successor to Amelie.