Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for some Violence
Directed by: Jay Russell
Written by: Jeffrey Lieber & James V. Hart
(based on the novel TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt)
Starring: Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Jackson, Ben Kingsley, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Scott Bairstow, Amy Irving & Victor Garber
I still remember studying TUCK EVERLASTING in Elementary School. Though I only read the book once, it had enough of a lasting impact to stick in my mind. What’s really surprising is that this acclaimed children’s book has only been adapted into film twice. There was a 1981 little-known flick and this 2002 Disney version. As with many book-to-film adaptations (especially those backed by Disney), changes have been made to the source material. TUCK EVERLASTING hearkens back to a riskier time for live-action Disney fare. This may not be as dark as SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES or WATCHER IN THE WOODS, but there’s definitely a more sinister side to this fairy tale. Ironically enough, TUCK EVERLASTING is more likely to entertain adults and preteens, than many kids. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Don’t go in expecting a cutesy, glowing fantasy that’s safe for the entire family. Rather, expect a fairy tale with a dark side, high concepts and deep questions.
The time is 1914. Winnie Foster is a 15-year-old girl smothered by her rich parents. Winnie’s overly protective mother wants her daughter to be a “proper” woman, but Winnie just wants to explore the world around her. After a particularly nasty argument between child and parent, Winnie gets lost in the woods surrounding her family’s house and stumbles upon a teenage boy drinking from a mysterious spring. The boy is Jesse Tuck and the spring happens to be the fountain of youth. Worried that she will reveal the life-giving spring, Jesse’s family decides to “kidnap” Winnie. As she spends time with this family of four, Winnie begins to fall for Jesse. Meanwhile, a menacing stranger is on the hunt for the immortal Tuck family…and their life-giving water.
The plot initially seems like a fairly straightforward fantasy-romance, but deeper themes about what it means to be alive and impending death also permeate through this story. There’s a fantastical atmosphere hovering over every frame. For the most part, the cast really sell their characters. I haven’t seen her in many notable roles, but Alexis Bledel is great as Winnie. Sissy Spacek and William Hurt, though underused, are perfectly cast in the roles of Jesse’s parents. Scott Bairstow is a scene-stealer as Jesse’s brother who sees eternal life as much more of a curse than a blessing. However, Jonathan Jackson is mighty bland as Jesse and takes on the role of a character who is probably the second most important person in the story. Jackson’s wooden delivery turns the character of Jesse into only a bland romantic lead and nothing else. This also results in would-be chemistry between himself and Bledel feeling totally unconvincing. The romance is rushed, but there isn’t a terribly long amount of time dedicated to it. Running at only 90 minutes, TUCK EVERLASTING has a lot of material to get through in a short amount of time.
Despite my last comment about TUCK EVERLASTING running at only 90 minutes, there are a couple of moments that do drag. These are definitely the romantic scenes between Winnie and Jesse. The opening 15 minutes or so feel very rough as well with choppy editing. Things get much smoother once Winnie actually meets Jesse, though there are two distinct moments of clichéd slow-motion. A more sinister quality can be much appreciated with Ben Kingsley filling in the role of evil villain. He isn’t given as many scenes as one might hope, but Kingsley brings a higher quality to the film for every minute that he’s on the screen.
TUCK EVERLASTING is far from perfect, but amounts to wholly enjoyable time well spent. An unusually mature tone makes TUCK a nice change of pace from the overly safe typical live-action Disney fare that we see so much of these days. The romance is forced thanks to a bland performance, but more serious and interesting parts of the story remain firmly in tact…creative licensing aside. TUCK EVERLASTING is not as potentially great as it could have been, but it’s the best film adaptation we can hope for (until someone eventually tries to give the material a third cinematic attempt).