Towards the end of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's showy new picture, Helena Bonham Carter, playing the mother of the titular pre-teen genius, turns to camera with a heartbreaking expression. It's a shocking moment, as until now no one in this orgy of whimsy has been given much opportunity to act. Each of the film's (mostly exhausting) characters has, instead, stuck to grotesquerie and the quirk which they've been assigned.
In this spirit, Bonham Carter is a posh amateur entomologist who lives on a Montana ranch with her reticent cowboy husbie (Callum Keith Rennie). TS (Kyle Catlett), their youngest son and the film’s narrator, is a 10-year-old prodigy who designs fantabulous contraptions, including a perpetual motion machine, an invention which wins him a Baird Prize in sciencing.
The boy duly sets out for the Smithsonian to pick up his award, a journey that takes him across the US heartlands as played by Québec. On the road, TS encounters a series of keystone cops and French character actors, all of whom speak “Genuine American” using sounds with no fixed or known zip code.
As with Martin Scorsese's Hugo – another film with a child protagonist and pronounced sense of wonder – TS Spivet demonstrates that an auteur can work marvels with 3D in a way that no studio picture has ever rivalled. Animated thought bubbles and eccentric diagrams drift pleasingly across the screen, objects hurtle out of the frame, multiple layers make up every shot.
Jeunet has routinely privileged art design over all others things in his series of adult-friendly fairy tales (The City of Lost Children, Amélie, Micmacs). The new film, in turn, gives a terrific impression of what Norman Rockwell's Teletubbyland might have looked like.
However, DayGlo gloss can’t compensate for muddled motivations, sloppy storytelling and yawning emotional chasm. A subplot concerning the death of our young hero’s brother is introduced, forgotten, and reintroduced, presumably to bring emotional ballast to all the pretty surfaces and zipless signifiers. It’s a haphazard intrusion rather than a tragic backstory.