Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of cinema’s greatest fantasy filmmakers: he is on a par with the small group of filmmakers that includes Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro and Jean Cocteau. He made his name with his dark fantasy films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children: the latter is his masterpiece. He also made the somewhat unfairly maligned Alien Resurrected, but got his creative juices back with his extremely successful Amélie. That was followed by Jeunet’s quite beautiful WW1 film A Very Long Engagement and the quirky Micmacs. Which brings us to his latest, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, which is only his second English-language film.
As the title suggests, the film concerns the story of T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) who lives on a ranch in Montana with his cowboy father, his mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) and his sister Gracie. He once had a brother, but he died in an accident involving a firearm.
T.S. is a boy wise beyond his years who is obsessed with science and invention, and he invents a perpetual motion device that wins an award from the Smithsonian Museum. In the early hours of the morning, T.S. decides to go on the long journey to the Smithsonian in Washington DC by himself.
Jeunet has been playing around with magical realism thoughout his entire career, and T.S. Spivet is full of this influence. Jeunet himself has always said he could never make a film that isn’t visually interesting. Not that he doesn’t like straight dramas, he just isn’t interested in making one. The film has a similar feel to something like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. In fact, along with Jeunet, Anderson was one of the source novelist’s few choices of directors who he would accept adapting his book.
The film has everything that a good kids’ film or story for that matter needs. It has the air of melancholy and darkness that the best work of Roald Dahl had. It also, like much of Terry Gilliam’s work, has such a deep respect for children that it never speaks down to them. Finally, it has that balance between being too dark for little kids and just the right amount of childlike wonder: Joe Dante is a director who also has done this balancing act many times. It has a fantastic bit of twisted black comedy in which a trucker picks up T.S. and shows him a picture of himself when he was in Iraq with a gun pointed at somebody’s head.
The performances from everyone are very good: Kyle Catlett as Spivet carries the film and never is too annoying (all too often the case for child actors.) Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly cast as his insect-collecting mother. It’s also nice to see Judy Davis in a film again as G.H. Jibson from the Smithsonian. The film is also beautifully designed, but with a director like Jeunet that is expected, the colour palette is his usual blend of vibrant greens and reds.
T.S. Spivet has had a very strange release; it was released in France last year and seems to have been moderately successful. It came out over here in an extremely limited release in June and has yet to see screens in the US. This is normally a sign of a film being absolutely terrible, but it’s quite the opposite in this case—e en if some critics, like the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, think otherwise. He quite shamefully called the film “twee,” which seems to have gone into too many critics’ vocabulary as a word to bash anything that is sweet and quirky.
The film has sadly also not been released on Blu-Ray in the UK. This package does, however, include a very nice feature-length documentary on the making of the film. T.S. Spivet seems to have slipped though the cracks for some reason, which makes it one of the unsung gems of 2014.
Genre: Fantasy, Drama Distributor: eOne UK DVD Release Date:6th October 2014 (UK) Rating: 12 Director:Jean-Pierre Jeunet Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Robert Maillet, Callum Keith Rennie, Kyle Catlett, Judy Davis Buy: The Young and Prodigious T S Spivet [DVD]