Disney’s tradition of intelligent, live-action family period cinema is magnificently revived in “Tuck Everlasting.” Director Jay Russell, following his family pic triumph “My Dog Skip,” is proving himself to be this era’s Robert Stevenson, the Mouse House’s reliable helmer of such ’50s and ’60s tales as “Old Yeller” and “Mary Poppins.” “Tuck” is even closer to the studio’s past than Disney’s earlier 2002 hit, “The Rookie,” while being a fine version of Natalie Babbitt’s elegantly written juve novel pondering deep matters of life, death and immortality. Pic should ride current wave of family-friendly B.O. with well-timed fall release.
Following a teasing prelude showing a young man on a motorcycle entering a present-day small town, Elisabeth Shue’s inviting, third-person narrative voice establishes the story’s thoughtful, metaphysical mood (“Time is like a wheel, turning…”) as action shifts back to 1914 in the town of Treegap. While Mae Tuck (Sissy Spacek) meets sons Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) and Miles (Scott Bairstow), back home after being away in France for a decade, young teen Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) feels stifled under the strict upbringing of her proper mother (Amy Irving) and father Robert (Victor Garber).
Russell’s exceptionally attuned eye for presenting characters in their surroundings quickly sets up the contrasts between Winnie’s starchy life and the Tucks’ rambling, backwoods style, and James L. Carter’s luscious widescreen lensing draws us into the nearby woods as much as Winnie, who has a tomboy itching to get out. The danger appears not from the dense forest itself, but from the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley), who the Tuck boys have noticed has been following them and who momentarily meets Winnie and her mom one night.
More than Babbitt’s yarn, Jeffrey Lieber’s and James V. Hart’s screenplay cleverly delays and draws out the Tucks’ wonderful yet terrible secret — a natural spring bubbling from the base of a large tree whose water gives immortality to anyone who drinks it. The Tucks are the only people who have imbibed, some 90 years prior, making 17-year-old Jesse actually 107 years old, and Miles old enough to have fought in the Civil War. Adaptation’s smart change makes Winnie and Jesse nearly the same age, so that when he discovers her near the spring, compelling the clan to kidnap her to ensure their secret, an effortlessly natural love story emerges.
Pic’s midsection is filled with the two families’ concerns over Winnie, but for vastly different reasons. The Foster homefront, feverish with concern over Winnie’s disappearance, sends out a search party. For the Tucks, Angus takes Winnie out on the nearby lake for a talk about what, decades later, feels like the curse of immortality and how it violates nature’s course, no matter the temptation to resist dying. Rarely has an American family pic so beautifully passed along to smaller viewers the hard, tough facts of death.
Final confrontation with the Man in the Yellow Suit (who strikes a deal with the landowning Fosters to buy the forest –with his own plans to promote the fountain of youth) works better than an earlier, strained section as forlorn Miles tells Winnie his own tragic history in stylized flashback. Though events force the Tucks to flee Treegap, splitting Winnie from Jesse, windup back in present ends the tale on a tender, contemplative and bittersweet note.
Making a memorable feature debut on the wave of well-liked skein “The Gilmore Girls,” Bledel seems like a young American version of Helena Bonham Carter, with timeless facial features and a manner that can shift from willowy to sinewy-tough. Her suggestion of sexual blossoming fits snugly inside pic’s soft PG rating, and she has an outstanding partner in Jackson, who connects resoundingly.
Youngsters are never overshadowed by their superbly cast elders, all at the top of their game. Hurt and Spacek make such an ideal couple it’s amazing they’ve never been cast opposite each other before, and their levels of expressiveness are rich and subtle. Irving and Garber are just as apt, and Irving reveals in a final scene touching feelings under her Victorian visage. Kingsley’s elusive yellow-suited man is a model of understatement, resisting every temptation to ham it up.
At times, production package renders pic almost achingly beautiful, and it’s not surprising that the name of Terrence Malick, noted for pops up in closing thank-you credits.