It’s very difficult to capture magic on film, and “Tuck Everlasting,” Jay Russell’s elegant, well-appointed filmization of Natalie Babbitt’s fountain-of-youth novel, fails to do the trick despite its lovely surfaces and committed cast. Russell, whose “My Dog Skip” did manage–despite a few missteps–to have a touch of the magical about it, works very hard to instill a sense of wonder in the audience; the director shoots everything in glowing, burnished tones that exude nostalgia (every image has an aura), and he paces everything deliberately in an effort to build a mysterious, supernatural atmosphere. And he does achieve one absolutely beautiful effect, when the main street of a early twentieth-century town is transformed into the contemporary version of the same location. But overall Russell’s effort doesn’t quite succeed. He treats the story with such solemnity and reverence that the picture seems an embalming rather than a realization. It becomes one story about immortality that, ironically, you very much want to end.
The set-up is simple. After a contemporary prologue in which a carefully-coiffed young motorcyclist (Jonathan Jackson) visits an old mansion in a New England town, the picture reverts to the early twentieth century, when the same fellow, Jesse Tuck, along with his sullen older brother (Scott Bairstow) flee a mysterious stranger (Ben Kingsley) to link up with their mother (Sissy Spacek) and return with her to the homestead, deep in uncharted forest, where she lives a reclusive existence with their father (William Hurt). Before long, however, the family’s solitude is shattered by the arrival of Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel), the beautiful, headstrong teen daughter of the snooty town matriarch (Amy Irving). Soon Winnie and Jesse have fallen into love in the bucolic setting, and the stranger has arrived to ferret out the Tucks’ secret–which has to do with a hidden spring that confers eternal youth (or, in the case of Ma and Pa Tuck, eternal middle age). Can the Tucks be saved from revelation–or worse? And when given the choice, will Winnie choose immortality with Jesse or a normal human life?
To be perfectly honest, despite the source’s apparently revered status, the basic content here isn’t much more developed than what’s ordinarily used for telefilms on the Disney Channel. What distinguishes “Tuck Everlasting” is the physical presentation, which is visually rich (with lushly green outdoor locations) and beautifully, if conventionally, photographed by James L. Carter, and the high-profile cast. For Hurt, Spacek and Kingsley to lend their considerable talents to such fragile material can be explained only by either a lack of offers or personal affection for the book. Surely the script doesn’t tax their abilities; Kingsley, in particular, is reduced to doing one of those “don’t move a facial muscle” performances that perhaps attracted him as an antidote to the rabid turn he’d just essayed in “Sexy Beast,” but still requires him to wear a most unflattering yellow suit. Bledel and Jackson make a pleasant young team; she’s agreeably tomboyish, and he has the requisite mixture of eagerness and ethereal vulnerability. As for Russell, he seems to have been working so hard at creating a glowing, elegiac atmosphere that he forgot to keep the picture as a whole from growing flaccid and soft.
To understand what’s lacking in “Tuck Everlasting,” you need only check out some films from an earlier age. Joseph Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), for example, created a truly otherworldly mood in depicting a romance between a spirit and a mortal woman. And William Dieterle’s “Portrait of Jennie” (1948) treated a similar tale of love across the lines of death with exquisite delicacy. Compared to pictures like this, Russell’s effort is earnest but earthbound, a family-friendly movie-of-the-week that’s out of its element on the big screen.