I'm supposed to turn my nose up at this movie. Well, first off, it's a girl
movie. And I'm a boy. A (sorta) grownup boy who snickers at the idea of watching
7th Heaven, Touched by an Angel, or anything on the PAX Network.
The kind who likes his movies about immortality to have fangs and blood-drinking,
or the occasional "There can be only one" beheading. Tuck Everlasting is a Disney
production that oozes with a lot more earnestness than blood, but I found myself
drawn into it nonetheless.
Tuck Everlasting, adapted from the book by Natalie Babbitt, is a set-in-the-olden-days
coming-of-age story that's a descendant of works like The Secret Garden
and Ann of Green Gables. Winnie (Alexis Bledel), living at the turn of
the (19th to 20th) century, feels caged, both within her house and within her
corset. (The corset has become modern shorthand to make us feel sorry for a class
of women who may or may not have felt sorry for themselves. It's an apt metaphor,
that neatly encapsulates that feeling of being stifled, but it's used so often
now, with a kind of blind one-sidedness that perpetuates 21st century America's
already alarming tendency to make judgments on people who live in other times
and places based entirely on the currently accepted mores and values. And while
we're on the subject, is the modern liberated woman's beauty regimen truly less
ridiculous or more healthy than a corset? Maybe. Maybe not.)
Sorry. That was clearly a tangent. In any case, the girl's mother has a (gag)
"respectable" life planned for her, but Winnie'd rather be playing baseball and
getting her clothes dirty, so anyone who's had restrictions or expectations placed
on them can relate to that (I love family movies that teach kids to question their
parents). Winnie's life changes when she wanders deep into the woods owned by
her parents, and finds the Tucks, a family of four who have a BIG SECRET (said
big secret can be discovered by watching the trailer, or, well, just looking at
the title of the movie, really).
If you've seen the trailer, you also know that the movie is a romance between
Winnie and Jesse Tuck. At first brush, the idea of Jesse, who's been alive for
104 years, falling in love with a 15-year old girl might seem creepy or unrealistic,
or both. But the film's idea of immortality is slightly different from the average.
Jesse Tuck is not so much 104 years old as he is eternally 17. He's a little like
Peter Pan, or a faerie prince. Jesse is a boy concerned with climbing big rocks
and petting fawns and galumphing through open fields. Jonathon Jackson, the actor
who plays Jesse, has a bit of the wide-eyed man-child charisma of Elijah Wood
in The Fellowship of the Ring. In the "possibly a bit of the ol' literary
allusion" department, Tuck, in various characters' mouths, sometimes rhymes with
Puck, and sometimes is pronounced like a certain minor hobbit character familiar
to Tolkien readers.
Immortality, according to father Angus Tuck, is like being stuck in time. They're
not exactly living. They just are, like the rocks. The glimpse we get into
their existence is the film's heart, and it raises interesting questions about
what it means to be human. On the downside, it answers those questions a little
too easily for my taste. The moral of the story is clearly posted, as are the
author's (or screenwriter's) intentions. (SPOILERS. SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH)
Winnie is offered the chance to become immortal, but there's no suspense, no question
as to the outcome. The author (or screenwriter) has already made the decision
for her. FYI, my understanding is that, in the book, Winnie is 10 years old, and
Jesse asks her to wait until she's 17 to drink the water and become immortal.
Given their age difference, I'm mighty curious as to how Babbitt develops Winnie
and Jesse's "courtship" in the book.
Filling some supporting roles are top-notch actors Sissy Spacek (Mae Tuck), Ben
Kingsley (as, I love this, the Man in the Yellow Suit), and William Hurt (Angus
Tuck). Hurt has a knack for bringing depth and spark to less flashy but pivotal
roles (see Dark City, see Dark City, see Dark City). Even
with all this serious talent, the truest emotional charge comes from Scott Bairstow
(star of doomed TV shows Wolf
Lake and Harsh Realm), when his damaged character, Miles Tuck,
reveals a secret of his own.
Tuck Everlasting is quiet, sincere, and light (not too light, mind you.
There's mild violence and that whole pesky mortality thing). It's an above-average
film, but it isn't completely transporting. One reason is that the characters,
as appealing (and well-acted) as they are, are ultimately made subservient to
the moral of the story. They're not shallow, really. Just simple, each of them
distilled into a single trait, and then moved around like chess pieces toward
a thematic goal. Some of the plot circumstances seem similarly, uh, utilitarian,
rather than organic. The story has a pre-appointed destination and the route it
takes leaves the viewer with too many plot questions, like: (BIG SPOILER AHEAD)
Didn't the old "He was holding a gun to a girl's head and I have four witnesses"
defense work back in 1899?
Still, there's something undeniably appealing about the Tucks, something that
catches in the brain like a tune played on an old music box. I rate Tuck Everlasting
a six, but it's a high six. Families with girls (heck, families with boys who
have wider interests than wrestling, football, and action figures) will enjoy
the respite from the "cute kid pals up with an even cuter animal" genre.