In a satisfying confluence of source material and director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet brings his signature abundance to bear on the richly stuffed adventures of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, Reif Larsen’s pint-sized Montana whiz kid whose genius gets him to the Smithsonian. “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is the perfect 3D vehicle and Jeunet takes full advantage, offering a feast of amusing visual flourishes suited to the book’s playfulness. As with “Hugo,” however, guessing the target audience will be tricky. An Imax 3D French rollout in mid-October could help the Weinstein Co. gauge how to market their yet-to-be-dated Stateside release.
Campaign strategists will need to figure out whether the kid protag and the pic’s visualization of a precocious child’s vivid imagination jive with the very adult expletives used by Judy Davis’ Smithsonian undersecretary, Ms. Jibsen. Given the repeated cuss words, it’s likely the producers are hoping for a mid-teen and older crowd, though the question arises whether post-adolescents will want to watch a movie about a gifted 10-year-old. The answer, hopefully, will be at least a tentative “yes,” since “Spivet,” despite some tonal problems, delivers much pleasure.
The book’s protag is two years younger in the movie, and quite a few other changes have been made to harness Larsen’s wide-ranging, free-spirited novel for coherent screen consumption. Copper Top Ranch is home to the Spivet family, an eccentric and oddly matched bunch headed by dad Tecumseh Elijah (Callum Keith Rennie), a dead ringer for the monosyllabic Marlboro Man sans mustache, and mom Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter, notable), a distracted entomologist. Their three kids are teen Gracie (Niamh Wilson), obsessed with beauty pageants, and twin sons Layton (Jakob Davies) and T.S. (Kyle Catlett, making his feature debut).
With its big open skies, wood-paneled study, old-fashioned telephone and rudimentary toasters, Copper Top feels like a throwback to mythical 1950s Western perfection, but like most everything else here, it’s a construction of a past inserted in the present. This is how the Spivets want to live — at least everyone but Gracie, who longs for cell-phone reception. Then one day Layton is accidentally killed when a gun goes off in the barn, and the family structure breaks down: T.S. believes he’s to blame, convinced his father (never hands-on with the kids) hates him. Even Mom retreats into herself, so when the little genius gets a call saying his perpetual motion machine is being recognized by the Smithsonian, he packs a suitcase and heads to D.C.
The train ride across America allows Jeunet to showcase U.S. pride, where purple mountains majesty and quaint Victorian Main Streets draped with stars and stripes testify to the country’s grandeur (though “Spivet” was actually shot in Canada, apart from a few second-unit establishing shots). Once in Chicago, T.S. hitches a ride and makes it to the Smithsonian, where the self-aggrandizing Ms. Jibsen (played by Davis with a touch of an Anna Wintour parody) is only too delighted to use his tender age for added publicity.
The tension here should come from T.S.’s misguided sense of culpability and his literal running away from dealing with those feelings, but Jeunet isn’t quite in command of these elements and the description of what really happened in the barn is too rushed to make the necessary impact. Ditto the father character, meant to be remote yet surely not without some presence. Though there’s plenty of heart here, and the warm feelings are genuine, their depth rarely breaks out of the cartoonish — a bit more Wes Anderson and a little less “Amelie” would have increased the emotional tenor.
Nevertheless, Jeunet does a fine job bringing so many elements together, showcasing his inescapable liveliness with moments of delight, such as a brief “Inside Gracie’s Cortex” fantasy, or T.S. imagining himself at the literal crossroads between the Mountain of Lies and the Prairie of Truth. Remaining true to the spirit of the book, Jeunet decorates the screen with diagrams, pictures and text, almost in a Peter Greenaway/”Tulse Luper” way, with the addition of 3D. Not since “Hugo” has three-dimensionality been used so inventively; unsurprisingly, the films share stereographers in the exceptionally talented Demetri Portelli, whose feel for pictorial planes is miraculous. Rather than seeming cheesy, each element thrown, swept or blown toward the camera induces smiles of surprise.
Canada’s magnificent landscapes do just fine masquerading as U.S. territory, with the areas around Copper Top Ranch especially golden, like a dream imagining of the fruited plains. Occasionally scene arrangements feel slightly off, as if Jeunet couldn’t bear to cut a few sequences and so dropped them, like unnecessary flashbacks, into places they don’t belong. Denis Sanacore’s score hits the spot.