With Tuck Everlasting, Disney harks back to the days when the studio was as well-known for live-action family fare like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller as it was cartoon features. Tuck deliberately moves against the grain of contemporary kid flicks, keeping out brand names and merchandising, employing an orchestral score instead of this week's pop songs, and editing at a leisurely pace and not a hyperactive one.
With a top-notch cast, a grown-up message and a respectable literary source in Natalie Babbitt's children's book, Tuck Everlasting seems to have all bases cover. But in trying to scale back the commercial, pandering aspects of family filmmaking, somewhere Tuck misplaced its sense of fun and provides little rationale for keeping your attention.
In the small town of Treegap in 1914, young Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel of "Gilmore Girls") chafes at the Victorian-style parenting of her mother (Amy Irving). If Mom leaves her unattended, she'll risk punishment to play stickball on the streets with the poor kids. Winnie yearns to explore the wider world outside the fence of her family estate.
Meanwhile, brothers Jesse and Miles Tuck (Jonathan Jackson and Scott Bairstow) arrive in Treegap, to be met by their mother Mae (Sissy Spacek). For unknown reasons, they're being pursued by an enigmatic man in a yellow coat (Ben Kingsley, dressed like Wild Bill Hickock), who questions Winnie if she knows them.
Facing the prospect of boarding school, Winnie eventually flees her home and runs into the deep forest owned by her family, where she comes across Jesse drinking from a mysterious spring. Without warning, rough-hewn Miles whisks her away to the Tuck home on the bank of a lake. The father, Angus Tuck (William Hurt), eventually reveals what the film's trailer has already given away: Thanks to drinking from the spring, the humble Tucks are indestructible and immortal, and Jesse, though he looks to be Winnie's age, is 104 years old.
The Tucks decide to trust Winnie with their secret, and in her time with them she gets a greater appreciation of freedom, nature and Jesse. Winnie must wrestle with a dilemma: Should she drink from the spring herself and be forever young with Jesse? Or should she take advice of Angus, who says that immortality isn't all its cracked up to be? "Don't be afraid of death, Winnie, be afraid of the unlived life," he says, touching on an admirably weighty theme for a family film.
One suspects the actors were drawn to Tuck Everlasting to make a film they could watch with their own families. Hurt and Spacek give relaxed, likable performances, although each has a minor but mannered trait: Hurt adopts a conspicuous Scottish accent, while Spacek obsessively plays a music box, making Mae seem mentally brittle.
With its blend of supernatural and American nostalgia, Tuck Everlasting strives for the tone and texture of Ray Bradbury's fiction. But director Jay Russell rarely envisions the action and conflicts in a fresh or intriguing way. We see Jesse and Winnie's courtship in the same kind of greeting card montage -- the happy couple frolicking through field and stream -- as Anakin and Padme's scenes in Attack of the Clones. When Winnie goes swimming for the first time and does some spirited dancing by a fire, we're clearly witnessing a sexual awakening, which the film doesn't quite know how to handle.
Jeffrey Lieber and James V. Hart's script doesn't show much trust in the audience. Obtrusive voice-over narration (from Elisabeth Shue) muses repetitiously on the nature of time and spells out Winnie's feelings, even though Bledel's appealing performance makes them perfectly clear. To build suspense, the film cuts to show Ben Kingsley and suspicious townsfolk tracking the Tucks, but they make so little progress as to seem slow and incompetent.
Tuck Everlasting's slickest moments involve the passage of time. The Tuck's flashback to their magical discovery is shown with effectively washed-out colors, while a framing device in modern-day Treegap fluidly dissolves from the contemporary Main Street to how it was. The film also provides a kind of backhanded testament to Babbitt's book. You want to seek out the original to learn what attracted such talent to Tuck Everlasting, as the film makes it a mystery.