A secret is about to be discovered. An adventure is about to begin.
The tagline is written in passive voice, and after watching Tuck Everlasting I can see why. The whole affair is wishy-washy, as though Tuck Everlasting doesn't know what it wants to be. The pace is languid and events too abstract to be a children's movie, yet corny stunts alienate mature viewers. There are many enjoyable aspects to the movie, but overall Tuck Everlasting seems like an aimless maladaptation of a great children's novel.
Facts of the Case
Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) is trapped beneath the stifling formality of her upper-class family. When she learns she is to attend a prison-like finishing school, Winnie flees to the pristine woods outside her gate.
There she encounters Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson), a charming boy who is alarmed at her presence. The pair is soon joined by Jesse's brother Miles (Scott Bairstow), who throws a hissy fit and captures Winnie. He carries her off to the Tuck's cabin deep in the heart of the woods.
At the cabin she meets Mae and Angus Tuck (Sissy Spacek and William Hurt), the parental units of this charmingly uncouth family. They make vague promises to return Winnie to her family, even though she knows their secret. But she doesn't know their secret. She later finds out their secret after frolicking with Jesse in the river. He tells her a shocking tale, and once she knows the truth, she must help the family hide it from others.
Unfortunately, someone is on the Tuck's trail, and he is very persistent. Keeping quiet won't be so easy once The Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley) catches up to the family…
Nothing purposive happens in this story. People walk about and talk, make vaguely ominous references, and talk some more. There is no central conflict to lend cohesiveness to the plot. This meandering leads me to believe that Tuck Everlasting is a conceptual book, a coming of age story with a philosophical bent that doesn't translate very well to film.
The problem isn't with the acting. The cast is top-notch, and they give the warm or chilling performances called for. Alexis Bledel is radiant and firmly holds the center together. She seems simultaneously naïve, spirited, and intelligent. The Tuck family gives convincing, if one-dimensional, performances. Hurt is still, brooding but kind hearted. Bairstow's Miles is consumed by pain, but retains a shadow of humanity. Spacek gives Mae a world-weary but life-loving resonance, tinged with darkness. The supporting cast is superb. Finally, Ben Kingsley, the shadowy stranger, does a fine job of appearing civil yet causing uneasiness in those around him. The light of obsession fuels his gaze. In a lesser cast he would have stolen the show.
The problem is the characters aren't given much to do. Tuck Everlasting wants to be a thoughtful exploration of immortality. A noble aim, poorly implemented. The prosecution presents the following as evidence of Tuck Everlasting's anticlimactic nature. When Winnie meets the Tuck brothers, Miles basically kidnaps her. He ominously intones that "you know what Tuck said about strangers. It must be done." Jesse is alarmed, screaming "No! Please don't! Not to her!" Miles sweeps Winnie onto his horse and thunders away. Jesse sets off at a flat run to intercept them. A nature-heavy chase scene ensues, with music and cinematography reminiscent of Last of the Mohicans. Will Jesse catch up to them before Miles…does what? What is the tragic fate Tuck sentenced for all strangers? Apparently, the tragic fate is that strangers are brought to the supper table, given a hearty meal, and tucked into bed. Hardly a reason for alarm.
Romance, tragedy, and heart-wrenching emotionality are handled with the same broad disregard for coherence. The movie was two-thirds complete when I realized I had no idea what it was about, what was supposed to be happening. It wasn't really a mystery movie, because the nature of the Tucks was laid out with the opening voice-over (which the prosecution will address momentarily). It wasn't a coming of age epic, because Winnie spends little time with the Tucks, and remains fundamentally the same. Movies mustn't necessarily fit into a genre, but a general direction is a good idea.
Annoyances mount. Most glaring are the unnecessary voiceovers; heavy-handed, overwrought, and ultimately pointless. They add nothing and take away much. Gratuitous slow-motion shots drum up the tension for no apparent reason. The romance seems like fluff; I'm not sure what purpose it served. These annoyances will likely alienate sophisticated viewers.
The transfer doesn't help the cause. I'm shocked at how much the video
quality detracted from the viewing experience, and equally shocked by other
reviews that praise the video quality. The haloing is eclipsed by poor contrast,
awful shadow detail and low definition in general. Many scenes consisted of dark
blobs set against darker blobs. The colors in indoor scenes are poorly
saturated, with orangey reds and subdued greens. The outdoor scenes fare
slightly better, with bright greens and blues. In one scene, Winnie and Angus
are in a boat discussing the finer points of immortality. The camera pulls way
back, reducing the two to pinpoints of white against murky water and trees. On
smaller screens, I doubt you'd be able to distinguish the figures at all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The sound stage is immense and varied. Thunder booms and it shakes the walls. Brooks laugh merrily, while the hauntingly delicate soundtrack plays in the background. The Man in Yellow's whistle is piercing, clear, and melodious. There were instances of unclear dialogue, and the soundtrack gets docked a few points for borrowing so heavily from Last of the Mohicans. The sound is superbly handled in virtually all respects.
It is hard to fault the extras package. There are two commentaries, a focus on the author, and "Lessons of Tuck," which is a toned-down coffee house talk session about immortality. This extra weirded me out a little. Jonathan Jackson hosts the lessons of Tuck, which are periodic interludes of discussion during the main feature. The movie pauses while the director, writer, cast, and "regular" kids talk about issues of personality, immortality, and maturity. I felt like I was in a meeting of the philosophy chapter of Mickey Mouse Club. The focus on writer Natalie Babbitt was better, showing the progression of her work and discussing her influences. Sadly, they never got around to asking her what she thought of the movie. There is rumor on the internet that she was displeased with the translation of her work, particularly the added romance angle, the added violence, and the flubbed ending.
Proponents of this movie laud its heartwarming, innocent appeal. It did have elements of warmth and innocence going for it. I wish that the superb cast had been better utilized, the cinematic overkill toned down. The net effect is uncertainty.
Jay Russell and writer Jeffrey Lieber are sentenced to read seven works of classical Greek philosophy. The cast is given a full pardon.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Jay Russell and Cast Members
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