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Saturday, April 4, 2015


It's been a long, long time since I read Mark Twain's two most famous novels, so I can't accurately attest to how close the 2014 film adaptation TOM SAWYER AND HUCKLEBERRY FINN sticks to its source material in regard to dialogue and such. But it seems to do so well enough.

For those wondering, this isn't a mash-up of the two stories but simply another adaptation of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" with both lead characters given title mention. So we're treated once again to that old familiar tale of country boy Tom Sawyer growing up in rural 1800's Mississippi with feral friend Huck Finn.

The orphan Tom (Joel Courtney, SUPER 8) resides in a bustling river town with his Aunt Polly (Christine Kaufmann, BAGDAD CAFE, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE) and prissy half-brother Sid, resisting all of her attempts to refine him, while motherless Huck (Jake T. Austin, "Wizards of Waverly Place", HOTEL FOR DOGS) mostly avoids his abusive, alcoholic father in favor of living in the wild.

An early classroom scene in which Tom tricks his teacher into letting him sit with the girls by pleading NOT to be put with the girls gives us the briefest introduction to Tom's heartthrob Becky Thatcher (Katherine McNamara), who then disappears from the film until much later. The celebrated "whitewashing the fence" interlude comes and goes without much fanfare, another familiar element from the book scratched off the list.

What the film really concentrates on is what happens after Tom and Huck witness the murder of Doc Robinson by the evil Injun Joe during a midnight grave robbery in the cemetery. When their friend Muff Potter is falsely accused of the crime, Tom steps forward to exonerate him but ends up in grave danger when Injun Joe escapes from the courtroom in dramatic fashion.

The film whisks us through a couple more Injun Joe encounters along with the incident in which Tom and Huck are believed by the townsfolk to be drowned while they bask on an island for a few days before making a joyous "return from the dead" during their own funeral service. Then it's on to the big scene with Tom and Becky getting lost in a cave, setting up the semi-exciting final encounter with Injun Joe.

In adapting Twain's story, the filmmakers pretty much rely on us already knowing who everyone is and how they relate to each other. In "Classics Illustrated" style, we only get fleeting glimpses of characters such as Aunt Polly and Sid, who in previous adaptations helped give the tale much of its amusement. Tom and Becky only get one really good scene together before their cave adventure. Still, the story is so good that even this truncated version manages to be entertaining.

The direction and camerawork are fluid though sometimes a bit too loose, with cinematography of the "hazy-hued nostalgia" variety. While the Bulgarian locations never quite convince us that we're in Mississippi, they look nice and yield some impressive shots. The Bulgarian accents, on the other hand, must've presented a problem as several of the actors are poorly dubbed (particularly stuntman/actor Kaloian Vodenicharov as Injun Joe) and the rest seem to have based their Southern accents on watching "Li'l Abner" movies.

Performances are adequate to good, with Courtney and Austin likable as the two leads--although for a couple of rough cobs they wouldn't be out of place in a Teen Beat foldout. The film's biggest name, Val Kilmer, is buried under a ton of old-age makeup as Mark Twain and is only briefly seen. (He does deliver the narration which is exposition-heavy and often superflous.) The original score by Robert Gulya is pleasingly robust. Director Jo Kastner's script ends just as the story of Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" begins, hinting at a sequel.

The DVD from Entertainment One and VMI Worldwide is in 16 x 9 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 sound. Subtitles are in English. No extras save for a trailer.

Not quite as squeaky-clean as some of the "bubblegum" versions (the boys still smoke, handle firearms, etc.) but still not nearly as gritty and authentic as one might wish, TOM SAWYER AND HUCKLEBERRY FINN should please kids who are new to the story even as fans of Mark Twain find it rather lightweight. Anyway, it'll do until someone finally decides to do a really definitive version.

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