For those parents planning to take their young children to see "Tuck Everlasting," based on the novel by Natalie Babbitt, they may well be in for a surprise. A decidedly grim fantasy-drama about life, death, and the possible consequences of gaining immortality, the film will undoubtedly bore or confound those under the age of 10. For all other audience members, there are several thought-provoking themes and positive messages to munch on, but that is nearly all it has to offer. As directed by Jay Russell (2000's "My Dog Skip") and adapted for the screen by James V. Hart and Jeffrey Lieber, the solid premise of "Tuck Everlasting" holds epic notions that such a slight, small-scale production cannot withhold. The result is a well-meaning, even occasionally effective, failure that never fully discovers its footing.
Set mostly in the fateful summer of 1914, Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) is a misunderstood 15-year-old girl who has begun to feel smothered by her strict, extremely wealthy parents (Amy Irving, Victor Garber). Never having had the chance to venture outside the gates of her Victorian mansion by herself, she escapes one day into the woods. It is there that she meets Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson), sipping water from under a magical tree that has given himself and his familyparents Mae (Sissy Spacek) and Angus (William Hurt) and older brother Miles (Scott Bairstow)ageless immortality. Fearing that Winnie's discovery will unleash their century-old secret upon the world, they have no choice but to force her to stay with them at their cabin deep in the forest. As Winnie begins to fall in love with Jesse and sympathize with the Tucks' plight, she must make the decision of whether she wants to live forever in a state of timelessness with Jesse, or follow the normal process of life and death as things are meant to be.
"Tuck Everlasting" is a perfect example of a motion picture that is both original and intriguing, but does not develop its story, characters, or their relationships in a sufficient manner. The result is something that, for all of its individual moments of beauty and gentle allure, fails to satisfy or engage us in the emotional manner it wants to. Clocking in at 90 minutes, the film rushes through much of its story and includes a thoroughly extraneous subplot involving a mystery man (Ben Kingsley) who has caught on to the family's secret and is in the midst of conspiring with Winnie's parents to track them down. Whenever the focus pulls back from Winnie and the Tuck family to follow Kingsley, the uneven machinations of the plot consistently show through.
In her audacious film debut, Alexis Bledel (TV's "Gilmore Girls") has been given the daunting task of carrying the heart of the movie on her shoulders. As the curious and confused Winnie, Bledel makes for an exquisitely worthy protagonist, and the freshness she brings in tackling her character is truly fetching. Credit Bledel and co-star Jonathan Jackson (2002's "Insomnia
"), as Jesse Tuck, for making their decidedly undernourished romance as charismatic and joyfully innocent as it is.
For the most part, all of the other characters take a back-seat to Winnie and Jesse. Coming off of an Oscar nomination for 2001's "In the Bedroom
," Sissy Spacek is criminally wasted as the empathetic Mae Tuck. Save for a touching scene in which his Angus Tuck discusses the subject of death with Winnie, the same could be said for William Hurt (2002's "Changing Lanes
"). In the one-note role of the Tuck family's hunter, Ben Kingsley (2001's "Sexy Beast") has been cursed with being the major hapless reason for why the rest of the picture does not gel sufficiently. Finally, Amy Irving (2002's "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
") brings much-needed depth to Winnie's emotionally frigid mother in the final act, while the ongoing narration, although unnecessary, is effectively read by Elisabeth Shue (2000's "Hollow Man
"Tuck Everlasting" gets better as it proceeds. The opening twenty minutes, for example, are a collection of messily thrown-together scenes in search of a focal point, while the final ten are genuinely poignant and conclude the story threads rather gracefully. Visually gorgeous, the idyllic cinematography (by James L. Carter) includes breathtaking landscapes and countryside vistas, all rendered in peacefully golden hues. At the same time, the final product is an uneven experience, lacking the urgency needed to become altogether involving. In the case of "Tuck Everlasting," its parts are infinitely better than its whole.
©2002 by Dustin Putman