We gave it an A-
For more than a century, Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been as much a part of growing up as skinned knees and secret hiding places. For almost as long, this tale of a rambunctious boy and a runaway slave traveling down the Mississippi River has been adapted and retold by Hollywood: Since 1920 no fewer than eight versions have appeared in theaters.
Well, Huck is here again. Disney, the studio that prides itself on being the cinematic chronicler of childhood, has just released its first adaptation of The Adventures of Huck Finn, a lively, sensitive film with lush cinematography and an exuberant score.
Big-eyed, small-boned Elijah Wood (Forever Young, Radio Flyer) is the latest Huck, that feisty, independent boy who hates shoes, ties, and all the other symbols of civilization. When his abusive vagrant father (Ron Perlman) returns to town to claim him, ingenious Huck takes drastic action to escape.
He fakes his own death and runs off. No sooner does he set out, however, than he meets up with a friend — a slave named Jim (played by veteran Broadway actor Courtney B. Vance), who has also escaped rather than face being sold away from his wife and children. Together the runaways head downriver on a course to freedom.
The movie flows along easily, smoothly translating the languid, episodic structure of Twain’s novel to the screen. As in the book, the powerful river that brings both of them newfound liberty also brings them peril. Jim is wanted for murder — Huck’s murder — and the friends are in constant danger of being caught. Almost every bend in the river brings a new problem: They cross paths with pirates, get caught in the middle of a deadly Southern family feud, and find themselves reluctantly involved with two con artists, the King and the Duke (played with relish by Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane), who try to cheat three trusting sisters of their inheritance. Through it all, Huck and Jim stick together, their friendship deepening with every mile they travel.
A strong script and a powerful, understated performance by Vance help the film tackle the issue of slavery with a combination of realism and sensitivity. Vance’s Jim is not merely the comic foil of earlier movie versions; he is a flesh-and-blood man, longing to be free. When Huck is befriended by a rich Southern family, Jim is once again enslaved. Huck initially ignores his friend’s pleas for help — until he sees Jim’s grief-stricken face and the slashes on his broad back that have been inflicted by a cruel overseer. Huck finally comes to realize that despite everything he’s been taught, slavery is wrong. He bursts into tears and begs for Jim’s forgiveness.
Just as in Twain’s first-person novel, Huck narrates the film and appears in practically every scene. At 12 — and a small 12 at that — Elijah Wood at first seems too tiny and delicate to play Twain’s hardy 14-year-old alter ego. But Wood manages to hold his own in the demanding part, delivering speeches and punches with equal ease. After watching Wood for more than an hour and a half of solid screen time, however, young audiences used to multi-star movies like Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may grow tired of his doe eyes and aw-shucks accent.
In the end, older kids who are already familiar with Twain’s irreverent, action-packed novel are likely to be this film’s biggest fans. Preteens who feel penned in by parental authority (in other words, all of them) will sympathize with Huck’s yearning for adventure, and they’ll be impressed with his ability to get out of uncomfortable situations by spinning all sorts of outlandish yarns.
Younger children, however, may be overwhelmed by the extensive dialogue and by several of the scary scenes, especially the ones between angel-faced Huck and his hairy, hot-tempered father (Perlman, looking much like he did on television’s Beauty and the Beast). Still, even the young ones will enjoy the film’s broad humor: Huck disguised as a girl, stuffing stolen food down his dress; Jim predicting Huck’s future by poking a hairball ”puked up by an ox just the other day”; and the con artists’ blatantly ridiculous versions of British accents.
While parents may be pleased at the chance to take the kids to a film based on an undisputed literary classic, their enthusiasm may dim a bit when they see uncivilized Huck lying, burping, and, yes, nonchalantly smoking a pipe. Still, they’ll appreciate the fact that despite his uncouth habits, Huck is by nature a well-intentioned, good-hearted soul who values friendship above all else. In his own convoluted way, he is always true to his word. At the beginning of the movie, for example, he promises the audience a ”spit-lickin’ good time.” Along with a touching lesson in humanity, that’s exactly what they get. A-