The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet (12A) ****

Kyle Catlett as T.S Spivet.''Picture:  PA Photo/Entertainment One.
Kyle Catlett as T.S Spivet.''Picture: PA Photo/Entertainment One.
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In a career spanning more than 20 years, French writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has chronicled the human condition – warts and all – through the medium of visually stunning and imaginative fantasies.

The charming Oscar-nominated Amelie starring the luminous Audrey Tautou propelled art-house darling Jeunet into mainstream and deservedly won Best Picture and Best Director at the 2001 European Film Awards.

TS Spivet is a similarly magical journey of self-discovery based on a book by Reif Larsen, who has co-written the big screen adaptation.

This endearing and occasionally heart-rending fable centres on a 10-year-old prodigy, who must travel more than 1,700 miles from his family’s ranch in Montana to Washington DC to collect a prestigious prize.

TS (Kyle Catlett) - short for Tecumseh Sparrow on account of the bird that crashed into the kitchen on the day of his birth – lives with his cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie), entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and beauty pageant obsessed 14-year-old sister (Niamh Wilson).

A dark shadow hangs over the homestead - the loss of TS’s fraternal twin Layton (Jakob Davies).

TS blames himself for the accident that took his brother’s life and occasionally converses with Layton’s spirit.

Out of the blue, TS receives a telephone call from GH Jibsen (Judy Davis), undersecretary of the Smithsonian Museum, who reveals that he is this year’s recipient of the coveted Baird Award.

Inspired by his emotionally aloof mother’s words – ‘Beware of mediocrity, it is the fungus of the world’ – TS packs his suitcase, writes a farewell note and heads for Capitol Hill.

En route, the youngster encounters a menagerie of misfits including a railroad drifter (Dominique Pinon) and a trucker (Julian Richings).

TS Spivet is peppered with Jeunet’s trademark visual flourishes.

When the eponymous tyke must make a spur-of-the-moment decision about telling a fib, Jeunet imagines TS standing at a crossroads with one signpost pointing temptingly towards the Mountain Of Lies and another urging him on to the Prairie Of Truth.

Light comedy and tragedy walk hand in hand, building to a crescendo of emotional outpouring that solidifies the bonds between TS and his kin.

Catlett is utterly adorable yet manages to sidestep the cloying cuteness of some child stars. He anchors the picture beautifully with excellent support from Bonham Carter, Rennie and the hilarious Wilson, who plays her fame-obsessed teen to a tee.

Art direction and cinematography are typically sumptuous, especially in 3D, which Jeunet treats like a playground to indulge his delightfully childish French fancies.