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Into the Woods 

*Tuck Everlasting (PG)
Walt Disney Pictures

You must view Tuck Everlasting in its intended vein -- "family" entertainment of the old-school Disney variety, aimed at the hearts of 8- to 12-year-old girls and their mothers. Think Swiss Family Robinson meets Interview with a Vampire minus the blood.

As such, it's a distinctive success, avoiding the pervasive presence of modern, smart-ass whiz kids parroting insulting lines. Tuck Everlasting is thoroughly drenched in imaginative setting, time period and character.

Based on the popular 1975 young-adult novel by Natalie Babbitt, Tuck is the story of a family who lives deep in the woods of upstate New York, in seclusion from the rest of the world. Angus (William Hurt) and May (Sissy Spacek) Tuck and their sons Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) and Miles (Scott Bairstow) have all sipped water from a magic spring that has rendered them immortal. Though the bulk of the film is set in 1914, the Tucks have been around for a long time, stuck at exactly the same ages they were when they first quenched their thirst some 100 years ago.

Entering their world is Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel), a spunky 15-year-old girl who is tired of her stifling life as the only daughter of the town of Treegap's richest family. When her parents (Amy Irving and Victor Garber) announce that they will be sending her off to Miss Hall's Academy for Girls for a "proper" education and to tame her unwieldy ways, Winnie runs away from home, ending up lost in the Tuck's woods. Because they fear being discovered, the Tucks hold her captive while trying to decide what to do about her unwelcome intrusion. In short order, Winnie becomes enamored of young Jesse and the timeless, seemingly carefree lifestyle of the Tucks.

Meanwhile, her parents, with the assistance of a mysterious, crook-nosed stranger in a yellow suit (Ben Kingsley), set out to find Winnie.

The tender love story at the center of Tuck Everlasting is gorgeously filmed, tastefully rendered and blissfully understated. Winnie is a girl who will keep her head; we know this from the start. Bledel is delightful in the role, exuding physical grace and intelligence while dancing on the edge of danger and romance. As Jesse, former soap opera heartthrob Jonathan Jackson is wide-eyed, bushy-tailed and devoted, basically every 12-year-old girl's fantasy.

Tuck Everlasting is ultimately about how we decide to live our lives. As Angus explains to Winnie when Jesse urges her to drink from the fountain and join the family for eternity, immortality is not all it's cracked up to be. The Tucks, he explains, are like rocks on the riverbank, just sitting there unchanging while the rest of the world rolls by. "People will do anything not to die," he says, "and anything to keep from living their lives." Winnie must choose whether to keep on living and growing, or to live forever as a girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Hurt sleepwalks through his performance, kind of like Nick the drug dealer in The Big Chill, still stoned after all these years. But Spacek is spirited and slightly wacky as May; Irving is snooty and formidable as Winnie's mom; and Kingley is creepy and smarmy as the mysterious man in the yellow suit.

Tuck Everlasting handles the philosophical questions openly and wisely -- laying Winnie's dilemma out on the table and asking viewers to make up their own minds as she makes up hers. The conclusion is satisfying and solid, as any good Disney-for-family fable should be. The studio has turned out some stinkers in the name of family entertainment in recent years, but this time they've chosen a worthy project and done it right.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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