From the Archive: The Adventures of Huck Finn

When I decided I was going to share these old reviews, I committed to doing so with only the tiniest of alterations. No matter how strong the temptation to edit, I mentally pledged to refrain. Some Saturdays are harder than others in this respect. There’s all sort of messiness to the language here, but I’m leaving it in place. I can’t even blame it on my status as a relative novice, since this was written towards the end of our three year tenure on the radio program. I’ll try to distract from my crummy writing by including this picture of Elijah Wood in the movie:

Adorable, right? Concentrate on that instead of the repetitive language and clumsy syntax. We’ll all be happier that way.

Though it usually seems like a good idea for a Hollywood studio to make a movie based on a classic piece of literature, the result is not always as spectacular as it should be. Looking to a classic novel should almost guarantee a quality product. One of the chief problems comes in when the filmmakers choose to be overly reverent to the subject matter. That was the case last year, when Gary Sinise was so respectful of John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN that he coasted on the natural appeal of the story rather than crafting a compelling, daring film version. The same is true of the new Disney Pictures adaptation of Mark Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN.

Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, whose previous feature film work is strictly of the straight-to-video variety, this film version of the classic tale manages to get the facts right without ever allowing the story to take on the scrappy, truly adventurous feel of the story. Everything seems so restrained, as if Sommers is laboring hard to make sure the film doesn’t offend. Though Sommers occasionally tries, the film never stuns us, and, perhaps most disappointingly, never conveys the majesty of the mighty Mississippi River that Huck Finn and Jim, the escaped slave, travel down. As played by Courtney Vance, Jim is a quiet, soulful man who breaks away from slavery because he knows in his heart that it simply isn’t right. It’s a sign of the film’s timidness that Jim is often portrayed as an excessively noble character, with impassion speeches about freedom and the merits of true friendship.

Faring better is Elijah Wood, the twelve year old actor who takes on the role of Huck Finn. Wood is an engaging young performer who captures a playfulness in the character and excels at the pure joy the character feels when deep in the midst of an adventure. With a wide, friendly smile and the glint of a true schemer in his gigantic blue eyes, Wood fits solidly into this character that shuns responsibility and lives for the moment that he can throw off his fancy suit jacket and run barefoot across a wide field. Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane have some amusing moments as a pair of conmen that Huck runs into on their travels, but Wood is definitely the standout. His performance captures the energy and spirit of Mark Twain’s original story far better than any other aspect of the film.

Luckily enough, that performance runs all the way through the film, keeping it consistently watchable. In retelling the story of HUCK FINN, Disney Studios has fallen far short of their own classic, settling instead for a limp visualization of the story that is saved by a youngster.

2 and 1/2 stars (out of 4).