[Screen It]

(2002) (Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Jackson) (PG)

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Drama: A teenager tries to break free from her rigidly proper social training and gets the chance when she meets a mysterious family that claims they never age and can't die.
It's 1914 and Winnie Foster (ALEXIS BLEDEL) is a 15-year-old who feels smothered by her proper, upper class upbringing imposed upon her by her conservative and wealthy parents Augusta (AMY IRVING) and Robert (VICTOR GARBER). She longs for a life outside her fenced-in estate, and thus decides to run away when she learns that she's to be sent off to a strict, all-girls school.

She ends up getting lost in her family's large and heavily wooded lands and then runs into fellow teenager Jesse Tuck (JONATHAN JACKSON) who's drinking from a spring at the base of an old tree. She's surprised by his presence and he's not happy she spotted him. Before either can do anything, however, Jesse's older and stern brother, Miles (SCOTT BAIRSTOW), shows up, grabs her and returns to the family's cabin home.

There, she meets the boys' parents, Angus (WILLIAM HURT) and Mae (SISSY SPACEK), and eventually learns that the spring from which Jesse was drinking has caused the entire family to be immortal and permanently stuck at the age from their first drink.

It's also led to the mysterious Man in the yellow suit (BEN KINGSLEY) who's trailed the brothers back to their home environs. As he attempts to find them and their source of immortality, and Winnie's parents call out the forces to find her, the teen must decide whether to join the Tucks as they try to maintain their secrecy and unique lifestyle.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
They say that some animals seem to acknowledge and/or understand death, but the vast majority don't and you have to wonder if they're better off for that. After all, they don't know they're going to die and thus aren't preoccupied with such thoughts and worries. Then again, they don't realize their mortality and that any day may be their last, thus leaving them with whatever unfulfilled animals goals they may have possessed.

Humans, of course, realize all of that and hate the tricks that time plays with them. When we're young, things seem to take forever and we can't grow up fast enough. When we eventually do, time flies by and seemingly continues to speed up to the point where we find ourselves wishing we were young once again.

Such themes of death and immortality have reoccurred since the beginnings of literature from ancient writings to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and all sorts of vampire tales regarding the undead. Not quite as dramatic or sensationalistic as those stories, but delving into similar subject matter was Natalie Babbitt's novel, "Tuck Everlasting."

The tale of a family that stumbled into immortality and tried to keep it a secret, the work was earlier adapted as a 1980 movie. It now hits the big screen in director Jay Russell's ("My Dog Skip," "End of the Line) version of the work. Set in 1914 somewhere in rural mountainous America, the picture is a throwback to those old-fashioned films of yesteryear that combined a moral with an engaging story.

As adapted by screenwriters Jeffrey Lieber ("Tangled") and James V. Hart ("Contact," "Hook"), the story closely follows the path of the original - although some of the contemporary times have been necessarily altered - and gently introduces the viewer into the setup.

Armed with a brief knowledge of what the film's about, few viewers will be surprised by the various developments and revelations. Yet, that doesn't make the story any less engaging, interesting or moving, even considering its occasionally melancholy tone.

Framed by somewhat manipulative but effective voice over narration that addresses the film's theme - and means more at the end following the narrative journey - the picture may have a hard time finding an audience.

While families looking for more "wholesome" entertainment might adopt it, the film's subject matter and its tone might be too deep or even unsettling for younger viewers. At the same time, many teens might turn up their noses at what they'd likely see as a film without enough pizzazz to interest or entertain them. While that might be true as compared to the normal offerings targeted at them, the film is effective enough in its storytelling to engage viewers who are willing to give it a chance to work.

That's not to say that it's without its problems. Some of the dialogue and developments feel contrived and the whole bit regarding the man in the yellow suit - who happens to be Ben Kingsley ("Rules of Engagement," "What Planet Are You From?") not quite in the formidable "Sexy Beast" mode - comes off as an unnecessary and not quite polished enough, villainous catalyst.

What does work is the interaction between Alexis Bledel (TV's "The Gilmore Girls") and Jonathan Jackson ("Insomnia," "On the Edge") as the youngsters who find each other. Their characters' conjoined symbolism, of course, is that she's trapped in her stuffy, upper-crust life and he's forever stuck at his current age. Thus, their characters find a common ground.

As their respective parents, William Hurt ("Lost in Space," "The Big Chill") & Sissy Spacek ("In the Bedroom," "The Straight Story") and Amy Irving ("Traffic," "Bossa Nova") & Victor Garber ("Legally Blonde," "Titanic") obviously represent polar opposite styles of parenting (liberal vs. conservative). For the most part the four performances are decent, even if Hurt has a problem maintaining his character's accent.

Scott Bairstow ("Wild America," TV's "Party of Five") gets the most interesting role as the young man who lost his family and thus fights in various wars presumably as a means of hopefully being killed. The fact that he can't only makes him more bitter and while the film hints at some of that inner turmoil, it doesn't delve deep enough into it (which the novel may have done better).

Despite the problems, the film still managed to work for me, perhaps because I'm a sucker for the subject matter. Combined with an arresting visual look - courtesy of cinematographer James L. Carter ("My Dog Skip," "Phoenix") - and a good score by composer William Ross ("My Dog Skip," "Tin Cup") - and the picture comes off as a decently made and thought-provoking little effort. "Tuck Everlasting" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed September 28, 2002 / Posted October 11, 2002

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