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Jean-Pierre Jeunet struck gold with his beloved Parisian film Amelie.
The titular protagonist, a whimsical brunette who lives in Montmartre (Audrey Tautou), captured the hearts and minds of audiences and Oscar voters.
The director has done it again in his latest film, The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet. This 3D film features a mixed cast of Anglo and French actors, including Dominique Pinon, Helena Bonham Carter and the film debut of Kyle Catlett. The film is an adaptation of an American novel by Reif Larsen.
T.S. Spivet (Catlett) is a ten year-old boy. And unlike most ten year-old boys, he has a talking dog named Tapioca, a domineering pain-in-the-butt sister who is obsessed with beauty pageants, a whiskey-slugging cowboy for a dad (“for him, talking was a necessary chore”), and an entomologist mother, Dr. Claire (played by Helena Bonham Carter, with a spot-on American accent).
The family lives in a Montana desert, with a kitchen shelf full of broken toasters and a painful family history, which is never discussed.
Jeunet’s style shows influence from Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, featuring Burton-esque camera angles, and an Anderson-like world: one that is a very real place, yet completely alternate and bizarre.
As in most movies with a child hero (Kevin in Home Alone, Matilda and Annie in the films of the same name), this kid is clever; so clever that he uses words like “melancholy” and “embargo.” T.S. (named after a sparrow) is a prodigious inventor – creating something called the Perpetual Motion Machine. He submits his invention to the Smithsonian Institute and wins a prestigious prize for his work.
The catch: the Smithsonian believes it to be the invention of his father, not a young boy.
As kids, we glamorize and even fantasize about a grand adventure, including running away. (I “ran away” twice to a nearby park with a knapsack, a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a library copy of Harriet the Spy.) T.S. packs a red backpack with three red sweater vests and a few other essentials, then he is on the road.
With some cunning and a red marker, he is able to sneak aboard an eastbound train as a quiet stowaway. Of note, the color red appears in almost every scene. As in Amelie, Jeunet uses color as a subtle influencer. So subtle, it will go undetected by most, but look hard and you may see symbolism in the hue choice.
Once aboard the train, T.S. makes a discovery. Like Amelie, he fingers through a book full of pictures, which offers some painful insight and revelation.
As Dorothy did in Oz, this wide-eyed wanderer comes across a motley crew of characters, including a Chicago police officer, a street tramp (played by Amelie’s Dominique Pinon), a hot dog vendor, and a truck driver who picks him up for the final leg of his journey. In parting, outside of the Smithsonian he tells T.S.: “Steady in your boots, man.”
T.S. arrives at the Smithsonian with broken ribs and a heart of promise.
Laying claim to his genius is the museum director who parades the boy around like a Stanley Cup. His hair is slicked back, she puts him in a suit and he is toured around to Letterman, 60 Minutes and possibly the White House. He is the goose with the golden eggs.
It is in this hideous sequence that a magnifying glass is steadied on an important truth: the fact that adults talk at children, rather than talk to them. One need look no further than any classic children’s literature to see the fate of this pattern.
His speech at the Smithsonian is sad and shocking – a big reveal of that thing the family never speaks of. (You will be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the theater.)
Perhaps the most notable thing about the film is that is shines a light on life through a kid’s eyes in a non Disney-fied, Pixar-ed way. That it is to say, a much more real way. Being a kid can be so hard, so sad, and so very lonely. T.S. puts a face to those feelings.
Like all great stories, this is one of a journey. A vigilant pursuit that drives the protagonist, plot and clock, ever-forward.
And T. S. journeys so far that he ends up back where he started: at home.