Dull as ditch water and with moments that will have you thinking ‘did they actually just do that?’ – in concern rather than amazement. Director and auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet created one of the most loved films of the century so far with ‘Amelie’ in 2001 but the rest of his work, some of it nevertheless very well regarded, has had a tendency to focus on quirkiness rather than story, with elaborate and fanciful props, costumes and characters. No surprise then that Helena Bonham Carter, who has effectively fashioned a career out of doing exactly the same thing, has found her way into one of his films in this, a rare English language departure from his usual French productions (the only other is 1997’s ‘Alien Resurrection’).
The story revolves around the adventures of a young boy of ten, the titular T.S. Spivet (played by Kyle Catlett), who deals with his feelings of guilt over the accidental death of his brother and the lack of acceptance from his family regarding his scientific endeavours by running away from his home in Montana and heading for Washington D.C., having created an operational perpetual motion device and received invitation to give a speech at the Smithsonian, although they are unaware of his age. It’s based on American author Reif Larsen’s debut novel ‘The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet’, and despite the serious nature of the plot it’s delivered to us in a fairly light hearted and whimsical way, trying to evoke the youthful spirit of invention and adventure that Spivet is imbued with. At it’s core though, there is a fluctuating chasm of moral ambiguity as we don’t really see or feel the consequences for his family after he leaves – and they are shown to be relatively loving, decent parents. Similarly, on his journey he hitch-hikes with a trucker who remarks that a couple of Spivet’s ribs are probably broken, but rather than do anything about it he just drives on and takes his photo, which he explains he does with everyone – queue shot of a series of creepy photos with various female passengers and even one with him showing off holding a rifle at the head of what we assume is a Taliban prisoner from his tour of duty in the Middle East.
The way it has been filmed continues this uneasy feeling – we see a goat with barbed wire attached to a fence and looped around its neck and Spivet and his father attempting to free it. Presumably, it isn’t barbed wire that was used, and yet whatever the material actually was how can you film it in that way whilst guaranteeing the animal isn’t going to be hurt? Later on we see a dog apparently being visibly made to chew on an iron bucket, and the same dog being forced fed, by Spivet, something it doesn’t want to eat (the camera cuts off before anything is actually ingested), but the worst is reserved for the humans on set as we watch Spivet hiding under a train when it begins to move, and then he crawls out between the wheels whilst it’s actually in motion. Now, surely this must have been done with camera trickery (if it wasn’t then Jeunet deserves to be in jail frankly) but it certainly looks pretty real, and what wasn’t faked is a stunt later on that sees the youngster take a leap and make a fairly painful looking grab for his intended target (thus the broken ribs). Catlett had a stunt double, but taking all these things together if Jeunet can’t make an adventure film without having it appear he’s putting animals and children in actual harm’s way then he really shouldn’t be operating behind the camera in any capacity, let alone directing big budget films.
Despite all of this, the film’s largest drawback is simply that it drags on with nothing particularly interesting really happening. Catlett is fine in the role, but struggles when the larger emotional moments are called for, and the visuals of some of the countryside are wonderful, but they can’t atone for a lacking and morally uncertain central story.