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Tuck Everlasting

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 10/10/02 04:14:20

"An improvement over the book. Is that rare or what?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Tuck Everlasting” achieves something that most movie adaptations can almost never achieve: It adds depth to a story instead of subtracting it. Most movies that have been adapted from books leave out major elements of the story, making devout followers angry and nitpicky. I may have had some sort of advantage seeing the movie version of “Tuck Everlasting” before reading the book. Or, maybe a disadvantage. I can’t honestly say, but I’m sure some faithful readers of Natalie Babbit’s book will grumble at the thought of having their heroine, Winnie Foster, 17 years old instead of 10. In my opinion, this adds more tension to the story as well as more layers.

(SPOILERS WARNING)
“Tuck Everlasting” takes place in 1918. When we first meet Winnie (“Gilmore Girls'” Rory, Alexis Bledel), she lives an almost confined existence under the roof of her parents’ opulent house. She has been told all her life how to dress, how to sit properly, how to be boring. They won’t even let her leave the front yard by herself. Naturally, she dreams of the day she can break free from this life and begin the adventure she would call her life. One night, she meets a Man in a Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley), who has been looking all over for this one family. He completely takes hold of her attention, as though he may be the devil in disguise. (He reminded me of Jonathan Pryce in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”).

The Man in the Yellow Suit has been looking for a family named the Tucks. Of course, he finds no help in Winnie. We gather early on that the Tucks have been blessed (or cursed) with being over 100 years old with no signs of having aged beyond a certain point. William Hurt plays the father, Angus Tuck, a warm-hearted individual; Sissy Spacek plays his wife, Mae, who carries around with her a strange, beautiful music box; Scott Bairstow plays Miles, the older and more foreboding of the two sons; and Jonathan Jackson plays Jesse, a spirited young man who will be 17 for the rest of his life.

One day, Winnie escapes into the back woods owned by her parents. There, she meets Jesse. She at first seems bothered that he would trespass on her property. Jesse’s brother shows up and realizes that Jesse has done a horrible thing by being seen by a “human.” The two decide to kidnap Winnie and bring her to their home tucked deep into the forest. The Tuck family, although taken aback by having another human around, seem delighted to have Winnie around and soon Winnie feels as though she has found a real family. It’s the sort of situation kids dream about when running away from home.

Of course, by making Winnie 17 and Jesse 17, a first love must bloom, followed by a first kiss. It does, and the movie tests the patience of cynics by showing innocent scenes of the two leads running through fields as music swells (Don’t worry, it doesn’t last long). Meanwhile, Winnie’s parents panic and have no idea where she could be. The Man in the Yellow Suit still pursues the Tucks. Winnie finds out that this fountain of youth from which the Tucks drank has been in her backyard (the woods) all this time. Naturally, Winnie must make a decision: To drink, or not to drink.
(SPOILERS END)

I enjoyed the book of “Tuck Everlasting,” but the changes made for the movie work in the story’s favor. For instance, the older brother, Miles, lost his own family when they realized he had drank from the fountain (or “made a deal with the devil,” as they put it). In the movie, Miles has more of a brooding presence, a real melancholia about being stuck with immortality. He gives the Tuck family more balance, whereas in the book, he seemed to be long over the tragedy of losing some loved ones. Likewise, Jesse seems to have a deeper longing for companionship now that he has set his eyes on a beautiful 17-year old (In the book, Jesse suggests to 10-year old Winnie that she drink from the fountain when she turns 17). This version makes Winnie’s decisions all the more complicated.

One should also give credit to screenwriters Jeffrey Lieser and James V. Hart (“Contact”) for punching up the dialogue for The Man in the Yellow Suit. Ben Kingsley clearly has fun with the role and even gets to corner a priest on the subject of immortality, a funny and compelling scene written especially for the movie. The screenplay also has more fun with a jailbreak scene than the book did. Only the voice-overs near the end sink the script by saying out loud what we can already feel in our hearts and see with our eyes.

Director Jay Russell, who also did another fine movie adaptation with “My Dog Skip,” clearly knows how to make a family film that tugs at the heartstrings without pandering. His “first love” montage may seem a little too long for some tastes, but most of the time he knows exactly when to cut a scene and when to linger on an emotion. He gets terrific performances out of every one of his actors, especially Alexis Bledel, who beautifully conveys all of Winnie’s fears, vulnerability, strength and frustration with natural charm and subtle gestures. She’s a natural.

One can only hope “Tuck Everlasting” finds its audience. We can be thankful that Disney put it out, since parents seem to trust that name above a title. Had Warner Brothers carried this movie, they would have buried it in theaters right in the dead of summer, guaranteeing it a short life as they did with “A Little Princess,” “The Secret Garden” and “The Iron Giant.” “Tuck Everlasting” seems a perfect choice for parents who want to push their kids a step beyond the likes of “Hey, Arnold!” or “Like Mike.” But I’m being too limited. People who want a good fantasy story without intrusive special effects and with a sharp script should go see this movie. Remember “The Rookie,” the G-rated Disney movie that came out earlier this year? This is just as good.

I would also recommend parents having their kids read “Tuck Everlasting” either before or after seeing the movie. Boys might prefer the original version and girls will surly love the movie’s love story, but the discussions that could come about from this story may surprise you. The poster of the movie reads, “If you could choose to live forever, would you?” This might be a good way to get the ball rolling on that talk about death you may have been meaning to have with your kids. Living forever sure sounds great, but how long before you get fed up watching those you love grow old and die? Sure, it’s an age-old question, but “Tuck Everlasting” has just the right ingredients in its story to get anyone of any age thinking about their answer.

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