Tuck Everlasting

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“Tuck Everlasting” is uncommon for a live-action Disney film. It has no flatulence jokes, for one thing, and it ruminates elegantly on matters of mortality and death far more than is typical of any family film.

It is directed by Jay Russell, whose “My Dog Skip” also dealt with innocence and the surprising depth that can be found in the emotions of children. “Tuck Everlasting,” adapted by Jeffrey Lieber and James V. Hart, is faithful to the poignant story and gentle spirit of Natalie Babbitt’s novel, though some of the impact gets lost in the translation.

The time is 100 years ago, when the rough-and-tumble spirit of the American west was beginning to clash with the stiff manners of the elegant life some Americans sought to cultivate. Teen-ager Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) is the daughter of wealthy, formal parents (Amy Irving and Victor Garber) who don’t allow her to do anything frivolous. Then she meets the Tucks, a curious family for whom time seems to be no object, who seem to live life in a carefree manner — except for some secret burden that weighs them down heavily.

Jesse (Jonathan Jackson), the younger son, is smitten with Winnie. His older brother, Miles (Scott Bairstow), is far more serious and somber. Their parents, the kindly Mae (Sissy Spacek) and Angus (William Hurt), are generous but sad. Something is not right with this family, but Winnie is drawn to them.

The acting throughout is restrained and respectable, particularly from Sissy Spacek, whose lines often border on the poetic, and from the fresh-faced Alexis Bledel. Her romance with Jonathan Jackson, sure to have teens swooning, conveys much of the giddy recklessness of young love.

The one exception in the acting department is Ben Kingsley, who is too over-the-top and sinister as the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit. I believe he belongs in a different movie, one where villains have curly mustaches and sneer at the heroines.

Russell’s hand is even and his tone is kind; he knows he is making a decent, good-hearted film, not a braying crowd-pleaser. There is much to admire in costume and scenic design, and in the general feeling of sweetness that pervades the film.

If you could live forever, would you? That’s the question at hand, but the film does not address it as completely as it should. The audience who will appreciate the young romance probably will not appreciate the film’s ending, which may be too mature and unromantic for their tastes. Where the book spent many paragraphs debating the ethics of the “Would you live forever?” quandary, the movie gives only some cursory philosophical declarations before moving on to the conclusion. It’s a good destination, but the road to it needs more clarification.

B- (1 hr., 30 min.; PG, a little violence.)

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