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Secret in the Woods 

by Ed Symkus


"Time didn't exist for the tummy tucks," says narrator Elisabeth Shue at the start of this softly magical story of love and life, of death and what may turn out to be its alternative. Based on the 1975 novel by Natalie Babbitt, which has become recognized as a children's classic, it was already filmed in 1980 by a small independent company with an unknown cast, but then just vanished.


Disney's backing gives it both a handsome look and a top-notch cast -- William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber and Amy Irving are the veterans; Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), Jonathan Jackson (Insomnia) and Scott Bairstow (Party of Five) are among the relative newcomers. Tuck Everlasting sets out with a premise composed almost entirely of unusual questions, then goes about answering them in a wondrous manner.


Set in upstate New York shortly after the turn of the 20th century, it's a tale of two very different families and a mysterious man who ends up bringing about changes for both of them.


The Tuck family lives in a small home deep in the woods that are owned by the wealthy Foster family. But neither family knows of, nor has met, the other. The Fosters are made up of Mom and Dad (Irving and Garber) and their daughter Winnie (Bledel). The only Tucks who live in the rustic house are Mom and Dad (Spacek and Hurt), while their sons, Jesse and Miles (Jackson and Bairstow) live "in town," wherever that is.


The first clue that something odd is going on is revealed with the information that Mrs. Tuck goes to visit her sons every 10 years. The line is casually tossed off, then forgotten. Let's just say it contains a goodly amount of foreshadowing.


The Foster family lives in a mansion, surrounded by an iron gate, closed off from the world. It's from this place that young Winnie longs to escape her parents' protection and formality, where she dreams of seeing what else is out there.


Certain members of each family are destined to meet, strange things will happen, there will be adventure. But first there must be mystery. "Somebody's on to us," says Miles to his father. "Somebody is following us."


That would be the long-haired, dapper Man in the Yellow Suit (Kingsley), who is indeed after the Tuck family for something they have that he wants. His long pursuit is reminiscent, in a much more serious way, of the one Eugene Levy was on when he was searching for a mermaid in Splash. A note of interest is that no one in the film will shake the Man in the Yellow Suit's hand.


The story is set into motion when Winnie, throwing caution to the wind, decides to take a walk in her family's woods, where she bumps into Jesse, who's drinking from what will be referred to here as a special spring. This coincidental meeting sparks the chain of events that will turn things from good to bad to good to... whatever individual viewers take away with them. But before what can only be called a bittersweet ending, there are issues galore, along with those questions to be dealt with.


The questions are relatively simple. Who are the Tucks? Who is the Man in the Yellow Suit? What do they have to do with each other? What is the story's big secret?


But the issues raised, including the destiny of humankind, are not so simple. There's a lot of environmental talk when it comes to people wanting to cut down the forest. There are philosophical discussions concerning immortality. The film's great central message concerns a condemnation of capitalism.


Yet like the book it's based on, it works perfectly well as a story for young viewers -- make that mature young viewers, probably ages eight and up. It's not just that they'll identify with the young actors -- who appear to be in their late teens and early 20s -- but they'll also find it easy to get caught up in the film's hypnotic aura, as will most adults.


Kudos go out to the location scouts for finding such beautiful spots to shoot in, and to James L. Carter for shooting the striking cinematography. The same goes for the cast, easily summed up by saying that Spacek is absolutely radiant, Bledel is doe-eyed, Jackson is gently strapping, Kingsley is menacing and Hurt is the voice of reason who keeps everything in focus. He is responsible for the film's best speech, in which he firmly and conscientiously has a long talk with Bledel, who wants to be just like him and his family. The gist of the speech -- done so many times before -- but approached in such a fresh manner here, is to be careful what you wish for.

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