The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

By Emily Cracknell

Mailed on June 20, 2014

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Dear Pierre Blondin
Locations Manager

Dear Pierre,

Not only did you provide a glorious backdrop to this muddled but enjoyable ride known as The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, but you also added a little backbone. Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec, and Washington State majestically stand-in for the Midwestern United States on a cross-country train ride to New York City. Without this illustrious landscape, the core of this tale would be lost, as both the young narrator and the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, have a habit of wandering off on random tangents. 

The film follows T. S. Spivet, who’s a very smart ten-year-old, in fact; he’s a genius. Although he shares his name with his father, he doesn’t share the same passion; while his dad likes the life of a cowboy, his son is a scientist through and through. This poses a problem, since T.S. lives in Montana, far from the maddening crowd, and in the heart of cowboy land. Though it would be more accurate to say that he lives, for the most part, inside his own intelligent head. Being a genius, he happens to attend a talk on perpetual motion, and designs his own perpetual motion machine. The blueprints of which see him awarded a prestigious prize from the Smithsonian Institute. The only trouble is, they don’t know his age. T.S decides to attend the prize-giving anyway, leaving his family behind to hitch across country by rail—and this is where your locations begin to give the film its sense of breadth and depth.

These beautiful vistas seem to incite a bit of depth in the characters, too. We learn late into the story, after we’ve seen many of your mountainous horizons glide past, that T.S. lost his younger brother in a bizarre accident, which he had been scientifically documenting. Since this accident it seems his parents have shut-down and shut T. S out. This troubling atmosphere leads T. S Spivet to seek recognition in the scientific community.

The backbone of the story is inherent in your landscapes. T.S’s journey from isolation, rural Montana, to recognition, the well-populated New York, is illustrated clearly in the scenery; while his emotional journey is processed along the wonderfully lit railway lines. If only the screenplay was able to weave all its disparate threads together in such a coherent way.

Like the train that carries him across the country, the film takes a while to chug into action and pick up speed. Based on the illustrated novel by Reif Larsen, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet uses a lot of interesting (but perhaps unnecessary) visual effects to accentuate T. S.’s flights of fancy. It has delightful small-touches and beautifully crafted production design yet Jeunet overplays his hand and the film although visually delightful, is overloaded by a fascination with detail and asides. These dashes of distraction detract from both T.S’s adventure and his emotional journey.

Maybe if he had paid heed to the simplicity and starkness of your locations, Pierre, this may have been a more compact and clearer film. However it may have also lost some of its innocent charm and childish wonder.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a mixture of whimsy and road-trip, children’s film and art film. It works best when you’re enjoying the scenery and letting the absurdity serenely wash over you.

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