Movie Review: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet


I’ll never understand how Hong Kong’s cinema operators are able to turn a profit. There are so many things conspiring against them — increasingly expensive ticket prices, sky high rents, legal and illegal downloading, larger HDTVs, higher screening fees… To keep attracting audiences, they are forced to upgrade their facilities with newer and more comfortable seating, 4D sound and digital projection but these only result in still higher ticket prices. Films come and go with ever increasing rapidity. If there aren’t enough bums on seats, it’s finished. Similarly, if an operator doesn’t think a film will fill enough seats, it doesn’t even come at all. That’s why we don’t get the Oscar contenders until the awards season starts. The operators are betting that the media buzz these films generate will translate into larger audiences. Unfortunately for them, by the time that happens, many people have already seen these films elsewhere, either legally or illegally.

THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET is one such film that never made it to HK… until now. Released commercially in late 2013, and on DVD in early 2014, it seems a strange entry to the HK cinema scene at a time when the box office is being dominated by the likes of JURASSIC WORLD and TERMINATOR: GENISYS. The film is being released here the same week as the remake of POLTERGEIST. What’s the connection, you ask? Actor Kyle Catlett stars in both movies. The films’ local distributor may be hoping that if audiences like him in SPIVET, they’ll go see him in POLTERGEIST. That may be a smart move, as the advance word on the latter film is not positive.

Based on the 2009 debut novel by Reif Larsen entitled The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the film follows the whimsical adventures of a 10-year-old boy genius (played by Catlett), who lives on a range near Divide, Montana, along with his anachronistic cowboy father known only as Father (Callum Keith Rennie), his entomologist mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), an older sister who aspires to be Miss USA and a “dizygotic” twin brother who seems to be the apple of their father’s eye. After one of T.S.’s science experiments ends in tragedy, T.S. withdraws into his own fantastical world while his family members cope with their grief in their own ways. He invents a perpetual motion wheel that catches the attention of the scientific world and, soon after, he is invited to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to accept its prestigious Baird Prize. Knowing that his family is preoccupied, T.S. packs a suitcase and hops aboard a freight train heading east. So begins a new round of adventures as he makes his way by rail to Chicago and then by semi hauler to DC.

One of the things that made the book so entertaining was that the margins of each page were filled with drawings, maps, charts and lists, purportedly drawn by T.S. himself. Screenwriter/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (AMÉLIE FROM MONTMARTRE and DELICATESSEN) tried to capture the boy’s creative mind by incorporating many of these elements into the film. SPIVET was purposely shot in 3D, and throughout the film (more so in the first half than the second) T.S.’s maps and drawings come alive on the screen.

But it’s a rare case when a movie outshines the book it is taken from and SPIVET is no different in this regard. The film cannot sustain the whimsy – or perhaps it is just a question of missed opportunity. I would have liked T.S.’s rail journey to have provided him with more opportunities to be delighted and curious with the world outside his window. Instead, we are shown the train inching along through drab towns while T.S. turns his attention inward. Similarly, his encounter with a policeman in Chicago started off with promise but it quickly morphed into a farcical foot chase.

The film hit its lowest point, though, with Australian actress Judy Davis. Playing the Smithsonian’s administrator who invites T.S. to Washington, she quickly sees dollar signs when she realises who and what T.S. is. Much like the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ, once she has the young boy in her clutches, she shows no intention of letting him go. His intellect is her ruby slippers. As she begins to lose control, she starts throwing around the “F” word, which is not only strange for a kid-friendly film but is completely unnecessary. As I mentioned in my review of ’71, there’s a time and place for vulgar language, and this isn’t it.

With all of its darkness (especially in the second half), the story does have a happy ending. Just as Dorothy Gale discovered, T.S. also learns that there’s no place like home.

THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET is not a bad film. It’s just not as good a film as it could have been.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 24:35.)

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