The last time French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet made an English-language film, it was Alien Resuurection... Redeeming himself with the Gallic highs of Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, he’s back to cack Hollywood again with an adaptation of Reif Larsen’s illustrated novel, creating a gorgeous, uneven, pop-up comic-book movie that irks almost as much as it charms.
Twelve-year-old boy genius Tecumseh Sparrow (Kyle Catlett) lives on a ranch with his dad (a monosyllabic Marbolro Man who keeps a cowboy mausoleum in the living room), his mum (who’s obsessed with collecting rare beetles) and his sister (who dreams of being Miss America). He also lives with the ghost of his dead twin – but nobody ever talks about that. Spending his days drawing maps and science charts, T.S. invents a perpetual motion machine, earning him an award from Washington’s Smithsonian Institute that he has to collection in person. With his kooky parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Callum Keith Rennie) not even noticing, T.S. hops aboard a train and sets off across the continent on his own.
As usual, Jenuet’s film looks magnificent. He paints his mythical vision of America in sumptuous autumnal hues: the impossibly yellow cornfields, red barns and blue skies look like they could be hung on a wall of a Midwest diner. The Frenchman also adds 3D to his toolbox of visual flourishes: eye-poling illustrations and flying diagrams accent his trademark attention to whimsy, while a shelf full of broken toasters bag more screen time than most of the actors.
Strangely pitched somewhere between a kid-friendly About Schmidt, Hugo and reimagined Huckleberry Finn, T.S. Spivet wobbles along on picturesque charm before it starts slowing to a crawl. A grinding halt’s reached when T.S. arrives in the capital: the sentiment gets sticky, the quirkiness gets twee and the last half hour feels clumsy enough to drain all the emotion from the finale.
With more whimsy than a Wes Anderson wedding – and a clunky third act that potholes the plot – Jeunet’s American comeback is beautiful, heart-warming and a bit of a mess.