To be triumphantly whimsical is no easy task in cinema. To get that exact tone right and strike a successful balance between originality and enchantment is something few filmmakers can achieve without being accused of contrivance. One filmmaker who has mastered the art of whimsicality, is pioneering French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the man behind films such as Amélie and Micmacs. However as he heads across the Atlantic Ocean to tackle just his second English speaking production with T.S. Spivet, somewhere along the way he seems to have lost that effervescent, French charm, presenting a film that, at times, is unbearably quirky.
Newcomer Kyle Catlett takes on the eponymous lead, an academically intuitive 10-year-old boy, who is an inventor in his spare time. Living on a ranch in Montana with his bug-obsessed mother (Helena Bonham Carter), his cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie), his older, narcissistic sister (Niamh Wilson), and twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies) – the youngster’s fortunes change when he receives a call from the Smithsonian museum, to congratulate him on his creation of a perpetual motion machine, an invention that earns him a highly prestigious award. So he secretly sets off on a trip to Washington DC to collect his prize, while those fervently awaiting his arrival have no idea of his genuine age.
T.S. Spivet is set in a somewhat surrealistic universe, with various eccentric characters and quirks implemented to create a quaint and outlandish piece of cinema. However the whole tone and atmosphere feels unnaturally – and forcefully – kooky in its approach, which proves to be detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the film. What is fascinating, however, is Jenuet’s almost romanticised, cartoon-like take on America, looking at the nation through rose-tinted glasses, and an affection born out of the movies. The director explores an inherently ‘American’ culture, with characters such as cowboys or beauty pageant wannabes, yet all depicted with a distinctively European fervour, as we peer into this world from a foreigner’s perspective. That’s not to say this feature is free of ridicule however, as the notion of the American Dream is one earnestly deconstructed.
To enhance the surrealistic, animation-like approach, Jeunet presents this offering in the 3D format, and it works exceedingly well in this environment. Everything feels more cinematic and overstated, and it suits the nature of the piece perfectly. There’s such a colourful, vibrant aesthetic, making for a memorable and striking visual experience. Meanwhile, Catlett shines in his debut feature film, carrying this production with a remarkable presence that is seldom seen in children of his age. However the role itself is somewhat difficult to invest in. Of course the entire point is that T.S. is well beyond his years and unnaturally, and quite staggeringly, mature for his age – yet he doesn’t speak how kids speak. Ultimately that’s the intention, but we lose sight of the fact he’s so young, and we could do with more subtle reminders in that department, to enhance his naivety and vulnerability.
Though a film that will certainly stay with you, it’s difficult to know exactly who this film is aimed at, and what is to be taken away from proceedings. It seems somewhat too juvenile to be considered an adult drama, and yet a little too cultivated (and in a couple of instances, vulgar) to be taken as a family adventure. Ultimately, and carelessly, falling between the two.