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TUCK EVERLASTING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Alexis Bledel, Ben Kingsley, Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Jonathan Jackson, Scott Bairstow, William Hurt
Director:  Jay Russell
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  February 25, 2003

“Don’t be afraid of death, Winnie…be afraid of the unlived life.”

Film ***

If you could live forever, would you chose to do it?  It’s been an obsession of man ever since he first became aware of his mortality, from the crux of every major religion to the Fountain of Youth, to even the myths and legends of vampires.  But we seldom think about it beyond the instant fantasy of it all…in truth, the answer may not be as simple as one’s first instinct.

Tuck Everlasting is a pretty and sweetly disarming film that examines that subject from two points of view:  those for whom immortality is no longer a choice, and one for whom it is the biggest decision she will ever make.  It is a love story, but one that coaxes us to think about the one subject we’d most rather not:  how finite our time is in this world.

Winnie Foster (Bledel) is a teenage girl living in the early 20th century who is struggling with the traditions and expectations of her well-off family.  One day in the woods, she meets Jesse Tuck (Jackson), which leads to a rather strange encounter with the rest of his family, who take her away to their cabin in the woods, treat her well, but remain mysteriously aloof about their motives.

As romance blossoms between Winnie and Jesse, he tells her the truth that his family has kept hidden for more than a century:  the Tucks are immortal.  A mysterious bubbling spring in the heart of the forest unknowingly granted eternal life to Jesse, his brother Miles (Bairstow), his father Angus (Hurt) and his mother Mae (Spacek). 

A life without pain, or growing old, or dying?  It seems every human’s dream.  But brother Miles has a heartbreaking story to tell.  Being immortal has its own price, and never having a broken bone doesn’t mean never having a broken heart.

The Tucks have kept their secret for a hundred years, but they worry more and more that they can’t keep it forever.  A mysterious man (Kingsley) has been tracking them for some time now, and coming closer to uncovering the truth about the Tucks and revealing the secret that could alter the course of all humanity.

At the heart of all the emotion conflict is Winnie…does she sip from the spring and enjoy everlasting love with Jesse?  Or will losing the pain of death cost her much more in the eternal run?  “What we Tucks do, you can’t call it living,” warns Angus.  “We just are.”  They weren’t given the choice, but she will be.

This is a solid family film offering from Disney with a surprisingly serious tone.  There’s not much laughter in the movie despite moments of joy.  A mood of serious contemplation buoys the romance.  It’s not the wrong choice—in fact, just the opposite; it’s a picture that deals with its issues as much with the head as with the heart.

And it works rather beautifully.  I felt a little distant at first, but by the time the credits rolled, I realized that this was the first movie in a VERY long time that brought me to tears.  The original book by Natalie Babbitt has been translated wonderfully for the screen by writers Jeffery Lieber and James V. Hart, with a warm stillness from director Jay Russell and a terrific cast.  There is a sweet chemistry between the young stars Bledel and Jackson, who bring their characters to life with tremendous heart and make the stakes that much higher as the tale unfolds.

The resulting movie is perfect for older children and their families.  Tuck Everlasting is a solemnly thoughtful fantasy, a lilting romance, and a philosophical drama all in one.

Video ***1/2

This is a warm and beautiful anamorphic transfer from Disney, with lots of outdoor settings, natural lighting, and few modern gimmicks to disrupt the period piece feel.  Colors are natural, fluent and well-contained, and detail level is good throughout.  Only a very few minor instances of edge enhancement are apparent, but these are light and not distracting.  Cinematographer James L. Carter did a wonderful job in creating the real-yet-fantastic world of the Tucks, and this disc preserves his vision nicely.

Audio ***1/2

For a mostly simple romantic tale, this 5.1 soundtrack offers the goods and then some!  The sounds of nature are always around to create ambience, be they the simple wind in the trees or a babbling brook, or the harsher and stronger vibrations of thunder or horses’ hooves.  All of these give the audio dynamic range and a nice open, natural feel.  The rear channels accentuate the action frequently, and surprisingly, the .1 channel stays in almost constant use.  This is mostly because of the soundtrack’s coup de grace, the beautiful and potent score by William Ross, which benefits from digital surround’s capabilities for open orchestration.  High marks.

Features ***

Not a bad extras package here, starting with two commentaries featuring director Jay Russell.  The first, along with screenwriter James Hart, is the more serious and studious, dealing with the actual filming, the adaptation process, and the themes of the film.  The second, with cast members Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Jackson and Scott Bairstow, is a little more relaxed, and frequently in Q&A form as Russell guides his young stars through their thoughts and stories.

Families might appreciate the “Lessons of Tuck” feature, which, when activated, gives you a brief introduction by Jonathan Jackson.  Then, while the film plays, it occasionally cuts back to him, as he discusses the movie’s philosophical questions with other cast and crew members, and some other young people who share their ideas as well.

Rounding out is a featurette with the book’s author Natalie Babbitt, which both young and adult readers should like.

Summary:

Tuck Everlasting is a lovely family picture that explores life and death through romance and fantasy.  A sweetly serious approach to its subject matter that doesn’t talk down to younger audiences is a definite plus, along with the terrific cast bringing the characters to life.  Recommended.