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The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet review: Whimsical tale of child genius

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Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet; Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant; Starring: Kyle Catlett, Jakob Davies, Helena Bonham Carter, Niamh Wilson, Callum Keith Rennie, Judy Davis; Running time: 105 mins; Certificate: 12A

From the director who brought you Amelie comes another cute and whimsical, magical realist fable, this time adapted from a children's book by the American novelist Reif Larsen. It's ably fronted by button-nosed tyke Kyle Catlett, who somehow manages not to be completely upstaged by the dreamy effects that take us into his genius mind. It's the unlikeliest 3D movie of the year, but Jean-Pierre Jeunet appears to have a better grasp on the technology than your average action maestro.

Helena Bonham Carter is the closest we get to a grounding influence in this story, playing mother, a kooky entomologist who married a sullen cowboy (Callum Keith Rennie) and is raising TS and his big sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) in the gorgeous prairielands of Montana. Jeunet immediately draws you into this wide open space – achieving incredible depth of field – while at the same time capturing intimate moments between TS and his little brother Layton (Jakob Davies) whose death disturbs the idyll.

The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet

© EOne


TS feels responsible for the tragic misadventure which underlies his decision to run away from home, although he does have a clear destination. He's headed cross-country to the Smithsonian in Washington DC where he is due to be awarded for inventing a perpetual motion device – the Holy Grail of the scientific community. This is quite a wild departure from Larsen's story in which TS is celebrated for his meticulous map drawings and, arguably, Jeunet is leading us too far into fantasy land. The bods in DC have no idea TS is a prepubescent child, but they take it for granted once the secret is revealed, testing the limits of plausibility even further (particularly Judy Davis as the batty PR woman).

It plays like The Polar Express in summertime, except that Jeunet at least has a better feel for the storybook aesthetic.

Getting there is the only obstacle TS is faced with. He has to stowaway on a freight train and conquer his demons, but it's a slow start and, once aboard, Jeunet hits a flat-line. TS is resourceful and executes his plan without too many problems, leaving too much time to watch the scenery go by and consider what lies ahead. Catlett is thoroughly engaging in the role, precocious without being a know-it-all – lost, confused and vulnerable in a world that he only understands in terms of the laws of physics. Jeunet illustrates those thought processes with comic style, however, there is less certainty when it comes to working through his emotional problems and his attempt to grasp the random nature of life and death.

The internal monologue that gives the book its heft is only thinly reflected in, admittedly, dazzling visual flourishes and there is only one moment of mortal peril when TS is chased across an industrial site. He just isn't pushed hard enough, making the film too lightweight and dampening the impact of climactic scenes. It plays like The Polar Express in summertime, except that Jeunet at least has a better feel for the storybook aesthetic. Thankfully, Bonham Carter cuts through the quirkiness with a subtly poignant turn and Catlett is impossible not to love. A far from perfect equation, but it's worth investigating.

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