In the early 1900s, teenager Winifred Foster (Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel) runs away from home fearing her mother (Amy Irving) and father (Victor Garber) will send her to boarding school. Escaping to the woods, Winnie encounters handsome Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson), who along with his parents Angus (William Hurt) and Mae (Sissy Spacek) and elder brother Miles (Scott Bairstow) are destined to remain forever young and immortal, having drunk from a magical spring one hundred and four years ago. Winnie finds love and happiness amidst this rural idyll, although she learns from Angus and Miles that immortality brings its share of pain as well as joy. But her parents fear she has been kidnapped, while the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley) is on the Tuck’s trail, eager to seize the secrets of eternal life.
Based on the award-winning children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt, this lyrical fantasy drama belongs to that select group of seriously offbeat Disney movies, such as Return to Oz (1985) or The Watcher in the Woods (1980). Movies whose philosophical and even melancholic qualities mark them as atypically mature efforts from the family friendly studio. On the other hand it is also part of a winning trend this decade for more thought-provoking children’s films of which Disney’s Holes (2003), Bridge to Terabithia (2007) and director Jay Russell’s The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (2007) are notable examples. Ostensibly aimed at children, the sedate pace and gently contemplative tone may put off younger kids fixated on action-thrills, but teenagers may warm to the touchingly innocent love story that rests at its heart.
Previously adapted into a little known 1981 movie, Tuck Everlasting is essentially a meditation on life and death, examining the joys and anguish wrought by living an eternal life. Angus Tuck pragmatically describes what he and his family have “cannot be called living” and, though Winnie briefly revels in freedom “to question, to explore and to play”, the film ultimately concludes it is better to live life with all that mortality entails. Impeccably acted by a quality cast, that includes Elisabeth Shue as narrator, youngsters Jonathan Jackson and achingly lovely Alexis Bledel keep pace with veteran scene-stealers like Sissy Spacek and Ben Kingsley. Though his character remains somewhat sketchy and downgrades into a pantomime villain amidst the third act, Kingsley simmers magnetically. Scott Bairstow also moves, especially during his pained reminisces about his wife and family driven mad by exposure to his immortal being.
Exquisitely shot, in the sun-dappled hues of an eternal summer, by cinematographer James L. Carter, this boasts an affecting score by William Ross. Events are confined to a singular space that, however beautiful and expansive, conveys the stifling nature of the Tucks’ existence. Mention is made of Miles and Jesse’s exploits across Europe and during the Civil War, but since these remain outside the concerns of this story one can understand why they have not been visualised. Its gentleness may render it a somewhat ephemeral experience upon first sight, but after repeated viewings the central message (“Do not fear death, but rather the unlived life”) together with the poignant conclusion can really get under your skin.