The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet (Review)

The Spivet family: Left to right- a cowboy, Tim Burton's wife, a young cowboy, a girl, T.S Spivet and a dog


It’s not exactly the most important thing for a filmmaker to consider, and yet it should be the question every director asks themselves in the process of making the film: who is the target audience for this? In the case of The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet, the awfully titled second English language film from director Jean Pierre-Jeunet, it’s an audience that doesn’t actually exist – hipster ten year olds. It is too irritatingly quirky to appeal to adults, and yet contains plot elements that are basically inappropriate for children (such as one adult character calling our nine year old protagonist a “real motherfucker”). I doubt the film will satisfy anybody, annoying adults with its eccentricities and alienating any children due to the emotional void at its centre; in fact, whenever emotional moments appear, they come at times that make no structural and narrative sense, almost as if they were added in as an afterthought.

In present day Montana, T.S Spivet lives on a ranch with his cowboy father (every second person in Montana is a cowboy apparently), his mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) and his older sister, whose sole character trait is obsessing over the Miss USA contest despite the fact it hasn’t been culturally relevant since at least since the 70’s. T.S conducts scientific experiments all the time, one of which led to his younger brother killing himself in the family barn. To hammer in the unintentional narrative similarity with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story even more, his ghost frequently appears to motivate T.S, whilst his father all but restrains himself from saying “wrong kid died” every time they meet.  His latest scientific discovery is the blueprint for a perpetual motion engine, which gets attention from the Smithsonian institute in Washington. Faster than you can say “convoluted plot device”, he tells them his mute father invented it and runs away from home to hitchhike his way to the capital – it is never properly explained why he didn’t just tell his family, because that seems like the logical thing to do. I mean, he’s great at science, so surely he has the smarts to realise getting a lift there would be easier than breaking on to freight trains.

I saw the film in 2D, but the film was clearly made to be watched solely in 3D; within the first twenty minutes everything from pop-up books, scientific experiments, samurai swords and snakes pop out of the screen. Director Jean Pierre-Jeunet is usually fantastic at creating amazing visuals (particularly in his bonkers 2009 film MicMacs), and yet here the third dimension has made his stylistic palette flatter than usual. The amount of time I spent pondering the production design as opposed to the film itself suggests that for all the 3D in the world, it means nothing if you haven’t got a half decent story attached to it.

The stylising problem doesn’t end with the 3D. Jeunet has clearly obsessed over old Hollywood westerns, which leads to a gratingly annoying harmonica/acoustic guitar soundtrack that could almost pass as a parody of old western soundtracks were it not for the fact the film was so cloyingly sincere. When making films in France, Jeunet manages to incorporate old Hollywood influences in inventive ways; in America (his other Hollywood film being Alien: Resurrection), they just come across as patronising, with the US flag appearing so many times here I was surprised it didn’t get top billing in the credits.

The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet tries nobly to incorporate old Hollywood style into a modern 3D extravaganza, but its absence of sincere human emotion means it fails miserably. It is all style, with not a single shred of substance.

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