Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the French director of the 2001 art house phenomenon Amélie, makes his first foray into the 3-D format with the adaptation of a young adult novel that matches his digressive, whimsical sensibilities to a fault.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is based on Reif Larsen's 2009 children's novel. Like Amélie, Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a genre-busting sensation that earned a near-$1-million (U.S.) advance: Written in a precocious 12-year-old boy's voice, augmented with illustrations, digressions and extensive marginalia, the book is presented as the journal of a child genius, scientist and map-maker who runs away from his Montana home to receive a major scientific prize from the Smithsonian. As we gradually learn, the boy's obsession with collecting and ordering information is an emotional bulwark against family discord and tragedy.
Jeunet's major achievement is to capture the book's complicated museum clutter and hothouse-flower sensitivity. Like Martin Scorsese's foray into similar territory with Hugo (stereographer Demetri Portelli worked on both films), Jeunet makes great use of nested onscreen spaces in exploring the world from a child's perspective and imagination. There are references to pop-up books and View-Master toys and cutout advertising figures and, following the book, onscreen diagrams and text.
In the film, T.S. (played by Kyle Catlett, a Macaulay Culkin lookalike) is younger, a lonely 10-year-old living with his oddball family in a quaint home beneath the achingly blue skies of Montana (expertly played by Alberta – much of the film was shot in Canada). Dad (Callum Keith Rennie, nicely subtle) is an archetypal taciturn cowboy. T.S. is closer to his brilliant entomologist mom, Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter, looking evermore like a dishevelled Victorian doll). His unexceptional two siblings are the beauty pageant-obsessed Gracie (Niamh Wilson) and quiet brother Layton (Jakob Davies), whose major interest is shooting things. Unfortunately, that includes accidentally shooting himself in the barn one day, a tragedy that the family subsequently doesn't speak of. They retreat into private forms of grief: bug studies for mom, booze for dad.
When T.S. gets a call from a Smithsonian saying he's wanted in Washington to accept a major prize for his design of a perpetual-motion machine, the invitation puts him in motion as well. He sneaks out of his house and hops a freight train heading east.
For much of the ride, he hides out in a luxury recreational vehicle called a "road condo" atop a flatcar, sitting around the kitchen table with a happy cutout mother and father. En route through anonymous Midwest American towns, he meets a roguish old French sailor (Dominique Pinon), a bohemian truck driver (Julian Richings) and a maternal hotdog-stand proprietor (Dawn Ford). None of them are essential to the story, but they stand as fellow champions of non-conformity.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a charm offensive that rarely actually offends (though I winced at the line when Dr. Clair says of her son's gun death: "Some things are just meant to die"), but it becomes a wearying chronicle of whimsy. Things go literally and figuratively off the rails when T.S. arrives in Washington in the movie's exasperating final third – the film scraps its light touch and becomes a flat-footed satire about pompous adults and the manipulative media. The Mercer Report star Rick Mercer pops up as a oily TV interview host, while, in the role of a Smithsonian official, the usually peerless Judy Davis is shrill, foul-mouthed and cartoonish.
Perhaps it's because the filmmaker and the novelist are too close in spirit to cancel out each other's weaknesses. Like cross-breeding a chihuahua with a Jack Russell, the result may be doubly cute, but also doubly annoying.