After his lacklustre previous film Micmacs (2009) proved that high levels of visual ingenuity are nothing without a decent narrative, Jean-Pierre Jeunet returns with The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013), an adventure film based on Reif Larsen’s 2009 book The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Somewhat known for taking known literary works and adapting the written word into vivid worlds of meticulously designed wonderment, Jeunet takes Larsen’s novel and the artwork therein and brings them illustriously to life. Kyle Catlett stars as the titular Spivet, a precocious 10-year-old with a passion for cartography and scientific invention, who lives on a Montana ranch with a family indifferent to his talents.
Spivet’s mother, Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), who is obsessed with, and passionate in her pursuits of, insects; his monosyllabic father (Callum Keith Rennie) and sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) – who dreams of superstardom – all go about their lives whilst mourning the recent untimely loss of their late son and brother Layton, who Spivet still feels vastly inferior to. One day, T.S. is notified – unexpectedly – by the secretary of the Smithsonian Museum (played by Judy Davis), who informs him that he is the winner of the prestigious Baird prize for his invention of a perpetual motion machine, and that he is invited to an honorary reception. In a bid to prove himself to his family, Spivet secretly embarks on a cross-country adventure, meeting curious characters along the way and coming to terms with his own sense of guilt.
Known for its unique design, accompanying the plot with various images and illustrations that enhance the reading experience, Larsen’s book has been ripe for adaptation since its first publication, a work that successfully moulds creativity with a genuinely engaging story. Jeunet here is on typically vibrant form, assembling an excellent cast (especially Catlett, who shines in a potentially tricky role as the boy wonder) and attempting to visually answer a question posed at the start of the film: “What if imagination started where science ends?” Yet, as The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet slowly drags on, Jeunet becomes overly distracted by his mirroring of his protagonist’s minute attention to detail, stuffing the screen with maps, sketches and charts – all of which offer an insight into the character’s innermost thoughts and cartographic interests – but forgetting to make the story as thrilling or engaging as it should and could be.