Starring Kyle Catlett and Helena Bonham Carter. Rating unavailable.
From the minute an elaborate Old West pop-up book announces the beginning of The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, the visual splendour rarely ceases.
In the same way he turned Paris’s Montmartre into a wild wonderland in Amélie, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet here creates a 3-D fantasy out of kitschy Americana, full of verdant ranchlands, taxidermy-stuffed “settin’ rooms”, hot-dog stands, grain elevators, and motor homes.
The mostly B.C.–, Alberta-, and Quebec-shot story is a coming-of-age road movie about a strange, brilliant little boy, based on an illustrated book by Reif Larsen. The tale sometimes sputters and drags like the transcontinental train that the unflappable T. S. (an unaffected Kyle Catlett) hitches a ride on. And yes, it occasionally plunges perilously into that double circle of hell of the eccentric and the twee. But Jeunet’s pop-up book of pictures never stops amazing you.
The film opens on an almost cartoonishly idyllic Montana ranch where 10-year-old cartographer T. S. is growing up with a Winchester-shooting twin brother (Jakob Davies), a bored older sister (Niamh Wilson), a distracted entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter), and a rugged cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie).
After a family tragedy, T. S. decides to ride the rails across the country to Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, which has just given him an award for inventing a perpetual-motion machine. Along the way, he crosses a vast, exaggerated landscape, meeting a bizarre array of hobos, truck drivers, security guards, and food servers. But just where is Young and Prodigious headed? The last act, at the museum, with Judy Davis as an ambitious administrator in high-camp mode, doesn’t live up to all the visual promise.
Still, it’s fascinating to see this warping of America, with many imagined thoughts floating like View-Master slides superimposed over the action. It’s the multilayered 3-D wizardry with a retro feel that gives Young and Prodigious a delirious sense of timelessness, all set in a magic-realist world where ghosts and dogs might suddenly speak. If only this road movie led somewhere as imaginative, without a story that keeps dragging it down to earth.