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Tuck Everlasting DVD Review

Tuck Everlasting (2002) movie poster Tuck Everlasting

Theatrical Release: October 11, 2002 / Running Time: 90 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Jay Russell / Writers: Jeffrey Lieber, James V. Hart (screenplay); Natalie Babbitt (novel)

Cast: Alexis Bledel (Winnie Foster), William Hurt (Angus Tuck), Sissy Spacek (Mae Tuck), Jonathan Jackson (Jesse Tuck), Scott Bairstow (Miles Tuck), Ben Kingsley (Man in the Yellow Suit), Amy Irving (Mother Foster), Victor Garber (Robert Foster), Kosha Engler (Miles' Wife), Richard Pilcher (Constable), Elisabeth Shue (Narrator)

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Early this decade, when there existed near-global anticipation for filmings of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Walt Disney Pictures became part of the fashionable trend of bringing young adult fantasy literature to the big screen. Disney was not, however, willing to come to the table with a $100 million per-film budget on par with the ambitious franchises New Line and Warner were working on;
not a frame of The Chronicles of Narnia would be shot until three installments of both Rings and Potter had each grossed more than $200 million in North American theaters. But, with the genre seemingly destined to be in vogue, Disney was game for making a new, respectably-budgeted feature adaptation of Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt's popular 1975 novel.

Babbitt's tale was initially put on film in 1981 by first-time director Fred Keller, a local Rochester, New York group of actors (including his co-screenwriter father), a 7-person crew, and a budget of $60,000. Disney's version -- titled, like the book and little-known previous cinematic adaptation, Tuck Everlasting -- would be produced by Scholastic Entertainment, the media company best known for publishing children's books, and an independent production company that was recently launched by Scholastic co-founder Jane Startz. More than twenty years earlier, Scholastic reportedly expressed displeasure that Keller had optioned the film rights and wouldn't sell them. Back then, Scholastic had intentions to tap Tuck for an after-school or weekend ABC special like the others the company was making. In the years that passed, though, Startz and Scholastic graduated to the big screen, translating to cinema a trio of widely-read works: The Indian in the Cupboard and The Baby-Sitters Club in the summer of 1995 and the Miramax-distributed The Mighty in 1998. By the spring of 2001, when filming began on Tuck, all parties seemed capable to handle this project.

In Disney's adaptation, protagonist Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) is a 17-year-old girl living in 1910s America. Her family's wealth and sensibilities leave her an involuntarily sheltered young lady. Her parents' decision to send her away to a boarding school pushes Winnie over the edge: she runs off to explore the world, or at least the woods neighboring her family's impressive house. It doesn't take long for Winnie to discover something exciting; her journeys quickly bring her into contact with Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson), a boy who appears to be her age. This event, a seemingly minor chance encounter, actually has wide consequences. Out of fear that Winnie will learn of the Tucks' closely-guarded secret or perhaps even become a part of it, Jesse brings Winnie to his family of four's forest home.

Alexis Bledel plays Winifred Foster, the curious protagonist of "Tuck Everlasting", seen here walking through the woods. The Tucks (left to right: William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Scott Bairstow, and Jonathan Jackson) kidnap Winnie, more or less.

Concerned and defensive, the Tucks make Winnie feel somewhat welcome while also refusing her a chance to leave. The girl is essentially kidnapped, though she can't figure out why. Her host family -- the quietly afraid head (Angus) Tuck (William Hurt), the motherly Mae (Sissy Spacek), the hostile Miles (Scott Bairstow) -- remain largely civil while visibly grappling with unspoken issues. Winnie gets closest to her first contact, the adventuresome Jesse, and the two form a friendship/romance over their shared curiosity and appreciation of woodland rambles.

Meanwhile, a shady man identified most frequently by his mustard yellow suit (Gandhi portrayer Ben Kingsley) is on the lookout for the Tucks, to whom he claims to be a distant relation, and Winnie's parents (Victor Garber and Amy Irving) report her disappearance to the authorities. Before the movie is finished, all paths cross and major revelations are made, but to say much more would rob the film some of its considerable powers.

Suffice it to say that Tuck Everlasting tackles the weighty, compelling issue of immortality head-on in a fashion that is mostly praiseworthy and intelligent. It is a ponderous fantasy/drama which demands skillful actors and caters to their life calling. To that end, the distinguished cast -- culled from diverse corners of show business -- performs very well. "Gilmore Girls" star Alexis Bledel makes her film debut a satisfying one, embodying the identifiable lead's possession of feelings that seem to define humanity. Across from her, Jonathan Jackson emerges as someone who finally has a reason for his long-held teen heartthrob status, even if he doesn't necessarily reflect the early 20th century setting. The trio of Oscar-winning adults -- William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, and Ben Kingsley -- not only add clout to the project but make the most of their numbered scenes by evoking hints of their characters' tortured souls.

Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) opens Winnie's eyes to waterfalls and a whole lot more. "A plane crashed here," deduces the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley).

Though it is not entirely free of missteps (its second half warrants some plot-questioning while the flashbacks as home-movies approach seems sort of silly), Tuck Everlasting is a movie that will largely work for everyone watching it. There is enough substance so that suckers for romance and those who steer clear of the genre can both appreciate the proceedings on their own levels.
Coming-of-age themes, an olden days setting, and a universally fascinating crux all complement one another nicely. The film opts for a uniquely enveloping pace rather than the A-sparks-B-sparks-C progression that most modern cinema relies upon. The surprises hold up for repeat viewings and the complex subject matter opens the door to personal reflections, contemplation, and discussion rather than having everything neatly figured out for the viewer.

The atypical qualities of the film (which stand out all the more next to other 2002 Disney fare like Snow Dogs and The Country Bears) had the studio take a different approach for its distribution. The movie debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September and opened in just over 1,000 theaters about a month later. It gradually built upon that, but its sub-$20 million final domestic gross makes it clear that its audience numbers never approached those of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. (Though the fact that the movie did surpass Country Bears, with or without foreign markets considered, points to some justice.) Surely, many discovered the film when it was released to DVD the following winter, myself included. Still, I have no doubt that there are many more who stand to be delighted by Tuck Everlasting upon viewing it.

In a bit of irony not unheard of for book-to-film adaptations, fans of Babbitt's novel are not the viewers most likely to embrace this 2002 film. Chalk it up to the changes made, most significantly, the aging of Winifred (from 10 to 17) to more readily explore a romantic angle in the story. There are also inconsistencies in the settings: the book primarily takes place about thirty years earlier and in it, the Fosters lived in a cottage. Plus one of the novel's characters (a befriended toad) loses all significance in the film, despite making a number of low-key appearances. Naturally, those wanting a perfectly faithful filming of their beloved book may be most disappointed in Disney's treatment. Others may very well appreciate -- and perhaps see fidelity in -- the film's winning spirit. And if not, well there's always the increased exposure a movie brings its source text.

Buy Tuck Everlasting on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: February 25, 2003
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $29.99)
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

The product of a time when Disney briefly dabbled in single aspect ratio releases, Tuck Everlasting was fortunate enough to be presented solely in an anamorphic widescreen transfer duplicating its 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. Picture quality is mostly quite good, though it's not quite perfect. Some infrequent haziness and minor color banding suggest compression might have been an issue (unlikely, even if DVD technology today has advanced from what it was 3 years ago); a few shots break up a little upon close inspection. This issue is minor, though. The print is expectedly immaculate and most of the nice vibrant visuals are rendered satisfactorily.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is your only option and it is more than adequate. Almost the entire movie takes place outdoors; this open natural atmosphere is capably conveyed. The volume needs to be turned up, but it is consistent and atmospheric effects usually have dramatic purpose rather than being gimmicky. In short, the soundtrack is active for a film which is mostly void of action sequences. The score by William Ross, which incorporates both whimsy and the olden days setting, is a highlight for sure.

Jonathan Jackson gets serious (way too serious) in "Lessons of Tuck." Natalie Babbitt, the author of "Tuck Everlasting", is interviewed and profiled in "A Visit with Natalie Babbitt." Winnie is first in a looped cycle of watery images on the "Tuck Everlasting" DVD main menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and DESIGN

Though there are just four bonus features, three of them entail rewatching the movie in full. First is "Lessons of Tuck", a kid-oriented viewing mode hosted by Jonathan Jackson (arm tattoo no longer edited out). With this feature activated, playback of the movie is interrupted about every ten minutes by brief vignettes discussing issues in the movie and addressing questions that may arise.
Commenting in the ten vignettes, which run 2-3 minutes on average, are author Natalie Babbit, director Jay Russell, screenwriter James V. Hart, actress Alexis Bledel (briefly), actor Scott Bairstow (whose answers consistently seem creepy knowing of his extracurricular activities at the time), and normal teens (including one unannounced Disney Channel Movie Surfer) identified by first name and age.

Topics covered include death, the effects of immortality, perfect love, the nature of secrets, getting older, material wealth, and "is it okay to kill someone?". While there is definitely some value to this unique pondering (which runs 25 minutes altogether counting the shorts, intro, and closing), there are a few drawbacks. Such as "who wants to watch the movie with scheduled interruptions?", a problem that can at least be rectified by using the chapter skip button to directly access the lessons. Other oddities: how Jackson sets up each segment in a very overdramatic way, how the other commenting celebrities appear in a moving parchment of sorts, how some of the questions are either no-brainers or a stretch in relating to the movie, how the ordinary kids are strangely posed and filmed, and how the whole thing is both bordered by oak and letterboxed.

Next and most substantial among supplements are two feature-length audio commentaries. The solid cast track has director Jay Russell joined by actors Jonathan Jackson, Alexis Bledel, and Scott Bairstow. They touch on a large number of issues regarding both dramatic intentions and the actual film production. Some of the more memorable topics covered include comparing the book and the script (what they saw in one that wasn't in the other), casting the parts, the characters and audiences' reaction to them. There are also plenty of candid production anecdotes, which reveal the entire waterfall sequence had to be reshot due to a film error, the film's final scene was shot in a number of different ways, and that William Hurt truly clashed with Russell as part of a cathartic day-long process to getting one of the film's most integral scenes done right.

The filmmaker commentary teams up director Russell with screenwriter James V. Hart and their interests lie mostly with the storytelling aspect. There is some overlap, reiterating Russell's somewhat sexist casting expectations and belief that a book can't be adapted plus elaborating on the aforementioned (and unfortunately absent) alternate endings. But there's also a lot of telling comments from both speakers, especially Hart, who underscores an interesting Peter Pan/Wendy nature to the Jess/Winnie relationship (he should notice, having wrote Hook) and labels Tuck his most difficult adaptation. The pair also remark upon the book (from its illustrations to essential hallmarks), the film's dramatic subtext, and Natalie Babbitt's meaningful approval.

Finally, there is "A Visit with Natalie Babbitt" (9:25), a featurette which mixes clips from a new interview of the Tuck Everlasting author with a biography composed of narration, photographs, and no shortage of Babbitt's illustrations. It covers her inspirations (Alice in Wonderland, The Feminine Mystique) and charts her career in an interesting and informative piece which only slightly caters to children.

The menus opt for a tree motif, with most of the listings appearing as bark scratchings, all screens accompanied by serene pieces of score, and the Main Menu rotating through character images in a watery fashion.

Assorted previews appear at the start of the disc, a couple of which are unique inclusions: a Disney Channel Movie Surfers look at Pirates of the Caribbean (pre-subtitle) and a teaser for The Haunted Mansion. There are also trailers for Inspector Gadget 2, George of the Jungle 2, and Belle's Magical World: Special Edition, plus an ad for Soap Net. The Sneak Peeks menu holds most of the aforementioned as well as a 30-second spot for "Kim Possible" on Disney Channel/ABC Kids and a neat promo announcing the launch of ABC Family.

Lovers cuddle by the fire. Winnie and Jesse share a fawn-tastic moment.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Tuck Everlasting seems like a stepping stone to Disney's present-day literature-to-cinema collaborations with Walden Media, yet it surpasses several of those subsequent adaptations.
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Natalie Babbitt's well-liked fantasy novel comes to the big screen with intelligence and vast appeal. While this 2002 filming doesn't remain entirely faithful to its source, it does succeed with thoughtful treatment of a compelling story and benefits from an exceptional cast. Though not everyone will love this affecting tale, only the most critical (and those insistent on fidelity to the text) will not like it.

The DVD delivers a fair amount of quality with the largely satisfying feature presentation being sufficiently complemented by two worthwhile commentaries, a solid author featurette, and not-without-value "lessons" playback mode. Considering how many worthy live action Disney films of the past are relegated to fullscreen transfers and barren bonus slates, Tuck Everlasting deserves special praise for its satisfying disc. Now at a bargain prices, it's easy to recommend as a purchase, even a blind one, to spare the cost of a rental which will likely lead to buying anyway.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / The Book by Natalie Babbitt / The Soundtrack

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Reviewed November 1, 2006.