The first 45 minutes or so of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (hereon shortened to plain T.S. Spivet, for the sake of my sanity) are actually pretty wonderful. We’re thrown into a world of saturated colors and rootsy Americana, a pastel-soaked idyll dropped right in the middle of the picturesque American wilderness. It’s a steady downhill slip from there, but those opening phrases will stick with me as some of the most interesting and memorable family movie fare I’ve sat through in a good long while.
The titular T.S. (Kyle Catlett) is a ten year old genius born and raised on a ranch in rural Montana. His mother is a melancholic entomologist (Helena Bonham Carter), his father a latter-day cowboy wreathed in nostalgia. It isn’t as much The Ranch That Time Forgot as The Ranch That Forgot Time – a place that’s constantly slipping into some Miller-time inflected former life, only to remember its place and scuttle back to attention in the present day. It’s picturesque, and oozes with layers of colour-laden beauty, but T.S. leaves it all behind when the Smithsonian offer him an award for a physics-defying invention, trading his bed for a box-car and riding the rails cross-country.
There’s no place like home, or so they say, and that’s the conclusion that T.S. Spivet eventually comes to – note the word “eventually.” Once the hyper-colored cowpoke antics are wrapped up and T.S. begins his cross-country voyage, the film slows to a dulled crawl, walking around in gradually larger circles until it finally reaches its end-point. There’s a few laughs along the way, but far too much down-time as scenes range from overstretched to darn near pointless. This is not On The Road, T.S.’ pan-American ramble is not a poetic odyssey into the oddball depths of the great American emptiness. It’s a light-hearted family film that should’ve been cut by 20 minutes.
As off the metaphorical and literal rails as it may go in the end, the more I try to think ill of T.S. Spivet, the more its eccentric and meticulous beginnings come back to pleasantly haunt me. The use of 3D in these early scenes is perfect. No matter what various film companies may claim, 3D does not actually work in 3 dimensions, it merely creates two contrasting plains – one further away, one closer – more like a pop-up book than anything truly enrapturing. And of course, T.S. Spivet‘s opening phrases are supposed to call to mind a pop-up picture book, meaning the use of stereoscopy perfectly compliments the gaudy colorization and meticulously quirky set design.
I realize I’m primarily reviewing half the film here, but then again, it’s the half that’s worth reviewing. It’s the half that inhabits that twilight world between childhood and adulthood; fact and fiction, bringing to mind Tim Burton’s supremely underrated Big Fish. The film in general may fall by the wayside at the halfway mark, but Catlett’s performance is surprisingly good throughout – genuinely nonirritating child actors are few and far between, and it’s nice to see a kid of so few years with some genuine screen presence.
As The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet‘s opening credits rolled and its initial frames leapt off the screen with an overpacked joy, I though I was in for a treat. Properly original live action family films are pretty rare nowadays, and for a while I couldn’t have been happier – it’s just like the traditional three act structure to bring my enjoyment to a crashing halt. As the film’s story comes to the forefront, Jean-Pierre Jeanut’s gorgeously stylized vision is pushed further and further to the periphery - I didn’t care about the plot, I just wanted more farmyard gallivanting. It ends up a mixed bag, with the great and the dull all mashed together in a finished product that is less a modern classic, and more a Disney Channel film with A Levels.