– by David Morgan-Brown
The quirky and eccentric French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a peculiar cinematic style that is wildly vibrant and visually whimsical, along with oddball sentimentalism and cinematographic grandiosity, a style he has applied to films as diverse as the sweeping romance Amelie and the sci-fi action-horror franchise hit Alien: Resurrection. It makes perfect sense that he has now created a children’s film with this personal style of filmmaking, adapted from the book ‘The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet’ by Reif Larsen.
It’s refreshing to see that this film begins by spending so much time with the family, establishing each member with the wide variety of characteristics and how Spivet (Kyle Catlett), as a son or brother, relates to them and lets us in on the passions, past-times, and ambitions of each family member, including his insect-infatuated mother Dr Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), his cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie), his modern-living sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and his rowdy outdoors twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies). Rather than jump straight into the story without learning anything about the characters, Jeunet quickly proves he isn’t dumbing down his content for the younger audiences. Through Spivet, we feel just at home on the farm with his family, but that’s just before he takes us abruptly away as he has been chosen for the Baird award in Washington for creating the first perpetual motion machine, so without telling his parents he begins a hitchhiking adventure to go there.
A part of the film that would have to be good otherwise the rest would fall apart is the performance from the young titular character, and he hits it out of the park. Catlett does something difficult for any actor to do in a single performance, no matter how old they are – do both comedy and drama. Catlett’s acting gels with the steady mix of the two genres this film has, all the while keeping fantasy and reality close enough for them to cross. Though this is no fantasy film where the young protagonist is somehow indestructible – the journey Spivet undertakes becomes a dangerous one, made all the more dangerous because of his well-intended but reckless decisions.
As wondrous and as exciting as the journey is, the destination it has been travelling towards ends up being not as original as everything that proceeded it, the final act of the film reeling all the usual “there’s no place like home’ messages in stock fashion. All the Jeunet invention in the film, both technical and creative, serve to not only stylise this on-the-road story from a child’s perspective, but to also mask some of the lack of creativity with the messages the film conjures up towards the end.
One other glaring issue with the film is it’s swearing (or ‘coarse language’, as the OFLC like to call it) which without it would have the film with a PG rating rather than an M rating – since the coarse language is of no use to the film other than providing some shock humour, it’s a shame it wasn’t omitted so this would reach a wider and more appropriate audience.
Despite the film’s unfortunate rating and its forgettable message, it’s not a forgettable film, filled with fantastic light humour, sensitive dark conflicts, and a great child performance at the centre of it to lead us through this delightfully original film, sparkling with eye-catching cinematography (enhanced by the pop-up book-esque 3D). This is a superb film to take your kids to, one that won’t give the parents headaches as this is a crowd-pleaser sure to delight all children no matter how old they are.