Jean-Pierre jeunet takes 3D imagery to the next level with this charming, shaggy-dog road trip.
What if you were to suffer from a mid-life crisis at the age of 10? French fabulist Jean-Pierre Jeunet poses this weird conundrum with his impressive new work, TS Spivet, adapted from a 2009 book by Reif Larsen which is tonally simpatico with the director's eccentric, digressional mode.
The Spivet around which the story pivots is the child actor Kyle Catlett, a pint-sized, ginger-haired science prodigy whose delivery, comic acting style and sense that he really understands what he's saying and doing, hark back to Home Alone-era Macaulay Culkin (meant as a great compliment).
This shaggy-dog saga involves TS taking a leave of absence from his daffy folks and their rural Montana homestead in order to ride the rails east to Washington DC and to accept an award from the Smithsonian Museum for a perpetual motion machine he invented in his spare time.
TS shares little in common with the members of his family: mother Dr Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) is a ditzy entomologist who for some reason married an emotionally interior cowpoke (Callum Keith Rennie), while sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) wants little more than to escape to the city and be involved in the Miss America pageant. Yet, the film is essentially interested in how disparate personalities and preoccupations can never supplant the bonds of family.
Though the motivation from TS's strange solo mission derives from the feeling that his parents don't really care what he does, another big catalyst was the violent accidental death of his brother Layton. The siblings were mis-matched in terms of intellect and interest, yet they managed to complement one another and — in the piercing eyes of father — create a single perfect being. As such, the ghost of Layton appears at various junctures on the journey to spur on our hero.
This is film that only someone like Jeunet could get away with, a Disney-like adventure which harks back to 'Huckleberry Finn' but which also seethes with dark sentiment towards the modern world. Once TS reaches this bastion of scientific innovation, his contraption is nudged to the side and the desire to adopt him as a cute PR focal-point takes over.
Elsewhere, Jeunet's portrait of the US is surprisingly balanced, filming the landscape as if it's a gigantic toy train-set to accentuate the primary-colour beauty of the indigenous iconography. The rolling hills of Montana are captured as if they were a mythical upland, untapped by the evils of commercialism. There's also a shot of a retro-futurist locomotive which is almost pornographic in its quelled sense of technological and aesthetic majesty.
Though the director himself claims in interviews that we are currently in the end zone of the recent 3D revolution, he does everything in his power to breath new life into the controversial medium. It's rare the a movie uses the third dimension so persistently and adroitly, and far from your eyes adjusting and settling early on, there's always a something going on in the foreground or background to make those uncomfortable glasses more than worthwhile.
Will Jeunet be able to offer a new riff on his customary clockwork melodramas?
Yes he is. The 3D here is jaw dropping, and Helena Bonham Carter is great in a small role.
Probably doesn't require a second viewing, but charming and heartfelt all the same.