Relatively young immortals, they haven't mastered dealing with humans -- which is why, when young Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel of "The Gilmore Girls") stumbles onto their secret in 1914, Miles Tuck (Bairstow) spirits the lacy girl to the family's hidden forest home near the small town of Tree Gap. The stream of life is about to dislodge the Tucks from their snug place in the earth.
Based on the best-selling book by Natalie Babbitt, "Tuck Everlasting" shares many of the same themes as Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden." Both are soaked with mediations on aging, and both harbor a palpably wistful (and thinly biblical) wish to return to an ageless Eden.
Director Jay Russell ("My Dog Skip") all but bottles this tone by bathing his cast in lush, green landscapes and vast vistas of yellow fields. Winnie, who comes to feel like part of the family, even pets a Bambi-sized fawn with love interest Jesse Tuck (Jackson). It's all beautiful, breathless stuff.
But Winnie's vanishing coincides with the appearance of a mysterious stranger (Ben Kingsley) who has tracked the Tuck boys through a European jaunt. Now he's in Tree Gap, and close enough to immortality to smell it. He scours a graveyard looking for the name Tuck, only to come up empty and confess his death-defeating obsession to the local preacher.
"You speak blasphemy," says the clergyman.
"Fluently," Kingsley says with a menacing smile.
Although packed with three Oscar-winners (Hurt, Spacek and Kingsley), "Tuck Everlasting" can't quite muster the dramatic tension or surprises required for a movie aimed at pre-teens. It's evident at the beginning how things will end, save one detail or two.
Thematically, Russell seems want to have it both ways: to have the Tucks appear as the wise immortals, but also Eden's naive children.
"Don't fear death," Angus tells Winnie when she learns the family secret. "Be afraid of the unlived life."
But life by whose definition? Early on, when Angus attempts to shake the girl's hand, he calls it the Tuck family's most important event in 80 years. Miles and Jesse may have fought in wars and traveled Europe, but they otherwise live like recluses. They've set themselves apart from the human race, living a bubble that isn't exactly life, but far from death.
Watching "Tuck Everlasting" is a bit like that -- it's not exactly a novel nor a movie, but something in between, and not as satisfying as either.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Jay Russell; screenplay by Jeffrey Lieber and James V. Hart, based on the book by Natalie Babbitt; photographed by James L. Carter; edited by Jay Cassidy; production design by Tony Burrough; produced by Jane Startz and Marc Abraham. A Walt Disney release; opens Friday, Oct. 11. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG (some violence).
Jesse Tuck -- Jonathan Jackson
Winnie Foster -- Alexis Bledel
Angus Tuck -- William Hurt
Mae Tuck -- Sissy Spacek
Miles Tuck -- Scott Bairstow The Man in the Yellow Suit -- Ben Kingsley
Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.