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A relatively modest production by Terry Gilliam’s standards, Tideland is, unfortunately, also a modest disappointment.

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Gilliam shot Tideland back-to-back with The Brothers Grimm
Gilliam shot Tideland back-to-back with The Brothers Grimm

Based on the novel by Mitch Cullin, Tideland is, at its core, a fairy tale for grownups. Well, “fairy tale” is perhaps the wrong way to spin it; this is the grimmest of Grimm.

The protagonist, a young and all-too-worldly little girl named Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland, Silent Hill), enjoys reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while her dad goes on a little vacation via a needle to the vein.

Her dad, Noah, (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) is a strung out, washed up rocker who is married to an equally strung out and washed up hag (Jennifer Tilly, The Cat’s Meow). They’re two foul mouthed, drug-addled parents who have the poor kid help serve up the drugs.

In an unlikely bit of foreshadowing, Dad barges in on Jeliza-Rose in the middle of the night to ruminate over the picture of a 2,000-year-old mummified man he found while reading a book during one of his “vacations.”

Shortly thereafter, Mom departs this world after an overdose and Dad takes Jeliza-Rose back to the house of his childhood, a house located smack-dab in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.

There, Jeliza-Rose meets some more colorful characters, including Dickens (Brendan Fletcher, Alone in the Dark), a full-grown man with the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, and his sister, Dell (Janet McTeer, As You Like It), a creepy, witch-like figure. Dell and Noah were childhood sweethearts of some sort.

Innocence

The gist of Tideland is that a child has an enormous capacity to bounce back from adversity and life’s challenges. This basic concept calls to mind similar themes in movies — and books — Empire of the Sun being one of them. In that case, a boy is turned into a young man via the life-altering and harrowing adventures he faced in China during World War II.

In Tideland, there is less of a true character arc. Instead, Jeliza-Rose uses her powerful imagination to escape her dreary reality. Her best friends are four dolls, or rather, the disembodied heads of four dolls, each named (Mystique, Baby Blonde, Glitter Gal and Sateen Lips) and each with its own personality.

Those doll heads fit perfectly on her fingertips, but Gilliam and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini take full advantage of the concept and at times those tiny doll heads loom large and lifelike.

Shortly after returning to his childhood home, Dad takes one last vacation. His soul in the hereafter, Jeliza-Rose leaves his body in a rocking chair. Eventually Dell mummifies his body, recalling the image in the book that so fascinated Noah.

For the rest of the movie, Jeff Bridges no more, Dad is a mummified corpse lying on a bed. It takes the black humor of Psycho to a much darker pitch.

Dream Out Loud

There is plenty to admire in Tideland. At the top of the list – even ahead of Gilliam’s masterful behind-the-lens trickery – is the stunning performance by Jodelle Ferland. She’s a 12-year-old who has already built up a lengthy résumé, most of it TV work. Here, she’s a scene-stealer and will no doubt be one to watch in the coming years, as long as she can avoid all those pitfalls of child stars. There is no question she has the talent.

Another one to watch is Brendan Fletcher. He disappears into his challenged - and challenging - character of Dickens.

It’s also nice to see Jeff Bridges re-team, albeit briefly, with Gilliam 15 years after The Fisher King.

Given those performances and the film’s terrific cinematography, Tideland would seem to be a natural must-see. But the story is so twisted and detached, it’s hard to warm up to the characters and to feel much of anything for poor li’l Jeliza-Rose.

Most of the time Gilliam’s movies offer up an enormous package of big ideas fancifully presented. Prime examples are Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; those are trips well worth taking.

Unfortunately, after the long, winding road from start to finish, there simply isn’t enough of a reward to recommend the journey to the dystopia that is Tideland.