Only a director with the creativity and imagination of Jean-Pierre Jeunet would attempt to bring to the big screen in English the best-selling novel by Reif Larsen “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet”. The book, described by author Stephen King as a combination of “MarkTwain, Thomas Pynchon and Little Miss Sunshine“, is illustrated with charts, lists, sketches and maps to help recount the adventures of the quirky, gifted 12-year-old boy of the book’s title . Jeunet has faithfully reproduced the visual elements of the novel to recreate the offbeat world of T.S Spivet and the use of a 3D format is perfectly suited to breathing life into T.S.’s illustrations which Jeunet’s does by drawing on his trademark mix of poetry and fantasy. But the plot does not lift from the page and the young boy’s eventful journey seems flat and doggedly two-dimensional.
The adventure starts off promisingly enough. T.S.Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives on a farm in the ‘Big Sky Country’ of Montana with his amateur entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter), his cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie) and elder sister (Niamh Wilson). A phone call to the ranch from the prestigious Smithsonian Institute in Washington informs the young Spivet that he has won a prize for one of his inventions. Since the death of his twin brother in a shooting accident, Spivet’s mother and father have sidelined the surviving son. Feeling neglected and un-loved, T.S. decides to travel on his own to Washington to accept his prize. The journey takes him across America on a freight train and into a series of encounters with a gallery of colourful characters.
While the scenes in Montana are a triumph to Jeunet’s bold, sweeping breadth of vision, once Spivet hops on the train, the action, conversely begins to falter. The characters he meets could have come straight from a cartoon strip – ageing sailor Two Clouds (Dominique Pinon) is a dead ringer for Popeye – and they add little or nothing to the narrative or the tone of the film.
As the lead actor, Catlett carries a lot of responsibility for one so young. No one can deny he is as cute as a button – with his oversized trousers and constant puzzled look – but he lacks the range of emotions needed to create real empathy. This may explain why a film about grief remains oddly unmoving until a a scene towards the film’s finale which seems unashamedly designed to pull the heart strings. This latest Jeunet is undoubtedly a glorious visual treat, but it lacks the magic and mystery of ‘Amélie‘ his most successful film to date. In French cinémas: 16/10/2013