With a magical use of 3D, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s TS Spivet sees a gifted 10-year-old trek across America to receive an award for his invention, given to him in the belief he is an adult.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Micmacs, Amélie and Delicatessen) has created another wonderful world of whimsy in adapting Reif Larsen’s much-loved American children’s story for the screen. It’s one of the most inventive uses of 3D I’ve seen, not just an add-on to 2D but used as something that expands and extends the scope of the action.
TS Spivet is a gifted 10-year-old boy – he calls himself a cartographer – and he’s also an inventor. Kyle Catlett gives an astonishing first performance, carrying the film. TS lives on a remote farm in Montana with his mother, Dr Clair, a preoccupied biologist specialising in insects (a restrained Helena Bonham Carter), his cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie, looking like the Marlboro Man) and older sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) who longs to act and take part in beauty pageants, and a dog who speaks to him. He also sees and talks to his dead twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies), dressed in a cowboy outfit, who died in circumstances explained at the end of the film. The interiors of the house are crammed with detail – bugs in cases, kitchen paraphernalia and quirky household decor. It’s shot in warm, rosy light and, although set in the present, seems stuck in a ’50s time warp – no cellphone reception, only a phone in the hall and old-fashioned kitchen with a running joke about a toaster. Outside are perfect wide-rolling prairie landscapes.
Unknown to his parents, TS has invented a perpetual motion machine and sent the details to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. Blueprints of his design float at us in 3D. Stunned by his genius, the Smithsonian invites him to receive a prize, assuming he must be an adult. His child’s logic makes him unable to tell his parents – we see him making his decision in 3D at an imaginary crossroads signposted Prairie of Truth and Mountain of Lies. And as his sister talks to him, we take a 3D leap inside Gracie’s cortex as the graphics open up for us.
TS decides to set off across America to collect his prize and grabs a ride on a passing freight train. This sets us up for a trip, not just across America, but through Americana. The train chugs for days through unspoilt ‘big country’ scenery of heart-stopping beauty with bison crossing, and in which, the further east he travels, reaching Chicago, nature vanishes and it becomes more and more industrialised. He lives in a camper van being freighted on the train. Inside are cardboard cut-outs of a typical American family, sitting round a table with a cardboard cut-out typical American meal, including a cardboard tomato sauce bottle. In a scene that concisely sums up American life, TS hides himself by posing stiffly as part of the 1D cardboard family group, fooling the security guard who looks through the window. Finally, after meeting a hobo living in a box car (Robert Maillet), he hitches a lift in one of those huge American trucks, the American flag in neon at the back of the cab, with a kindly trucker who gives him homespun advice and drops him off at the Smithsonian.
From then on, the film loses some of its escapist magic. Once TS manages to convince Ms Jibsen (Judy Davis), the deputy director, he’s the person they’re expecting, his brain is investigated by scientists and he’s exploited for media purposes. Giving his acceptance speech to a hall full of evening-dressed adults, he finally verbalises his unresolved guilt about the death of his brother – reminding us that really he is still just a child himself. While he’s being patronised by the presenter on a TV talk show, his worried and loving family arrive. And as his mother hijacks the show to save him, he understands at last the grief for his brother’s death that had made her seem so distant to him.
In writing his screenplay for the film, Jeunet always had 3D in mind and he uses it to give us an extended reality that mirrors the quirky illustrations of the book, to give us the ability to see inside people’s heads, to see how an invention works, while the normal onscreen action carries on. You wonder why no-one has thought to exploit it in this way before. The film, with its picaresque story, also shows us the beauty of America, its poetry which we may have forgotten, whilst simultaneously celebrating and gently satirising its conventional values. It’s an enchanting, imaginative film that is at times pure enjoyment, one you can watch with childlike, eye-popping wonder. It exists in a magical realist world all of its own – ostensibly current real time, but shot and accessorised as if in a fictional past with adults simply affectionate caricatures. And while its story is told from the point of view of a 10-year-old boy, as a family film, it could come up against problems with the character of Ms Jibsen, who, when her promotional plans for TS go awry, lets fly with a volley of strong swearwords.
TS Spivet is released on 13th June 2014 in the UK