Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1993)
The Adventures of Huck Finn
Being the primary work of perhaps America's most iconic writer, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” have been adapted many times over the years. IMDb lists at least forty-six adaptations, ranging from films to TV shows to animation and even foreign language productions. My introduction to Twain's boy adventurers was Disney's 1995 film, “Tom and Huck.” Though apparently a box office flop, I recall the movie being kind of a big deal. Weirdly, that film was a follow-up of sorts to an earlier Twain adaptation, also from Disney. Stephen Sommers, who co-wrote that film, previously wrote and direct “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” To be totally honest, I had no idea it existed before beginning this project.
Since most of you probably read the book in high school, I'll be brief with my plot synopsis. Huckleberry Finn is a boy living in Missouri in the antebellum South. After his abusive father returns, Huck runs away from home. He soon meets Jim, a runaway slave hoping to escape to the South. The two begin to float on a raft down the Mississippi River. Along the way, they run into various colorful people and adventures. At the same time, Huck also changes his opinions on slavery.
Sommers' “Adventures of Huck Finn” does touch upon many of the positive attributes of Twain's novel. This is a film full of colorful characters and interesting settings. It successfully captures the episodic structure of the book but never has a halting or uneven pacing. The particular Southern atmosphere impresses the reader. There are a number of amusing episodes, like Huck convincing a group of men on a raft that he has leprosy. Moreover, Sommers' “Adventures of Huck Finn” does capture some of Twain's themes. A sequence near the end, where a group of angry townsfolk put two men on trial, successfully speaks to concerns about mass hysteria and group thought.
Twain's book has famously been challenged many times over the years, for its blunt and realistic depiction of racism and slavery during the Antebellum South. This, on the other hand, is a PG-rated Disney movie. There are no N-words in this “Huck Finn.” Yes, there is a scene set on a plantation. We see Jim working in the fields. He removes his shirt and shows the scars on his back. A whipping scene happens just off-screen, the actual blows unseen by the audience. The film retains Twain's moral lesson, of how Huck comes to realize Jim – and all black people, by extension – are just as human as he is. That it is sometimes good if things don't stay the way they've always been. However, by removing the harsher elements, this can't help but function like a cleaner, friendlier version of a history that was anything but.
The main bit of praise this “Huck Finn” seems to get is reserved for its cast. Casting Elijah Wood as Huck Finn back in the early nineties was a no-brainer. Wood was the right age and probably the most talented male child actor at the time. (He was certainly a better choice for the role than the other big name kid actor of the day, Macaulay Culkin.) Wood is not just the right age but has the right attitude. Finn is always a rascal, fond of telling tall tales and getting himself into wild situations. Wood embodies all these qualities and more, creating a young anti-hero that the audience can root for. He makes Finn's evolution, from a selfish person to someone with a sturdier moral center, seem very believable.
Starring alongside Wood is Courtney B. Vance. As Jim, Vance is a warm and likable presence. He's believable as the boy's best friend, always ready with a big smile or anecdote. This is best displayed in a scene where Jim and Huck goof around on a boat, talking about French or pretending to sword fight. However, Vance is ultimately underserved by the material. He can only hint at the sadness of his character. The script has him frequently mentioning his wife and children, who he intends to buy once he's a free man. Yet we never get a sense of how much he cares about these people, so they remain vague concepts. Moreover, the detached and sanitized approach to the material means the difficult life Jim lives, as a slave in the South, is only depicted in broad strokes. Vance is good but he can only do so much with an underwritten part.
The film is also full of faces familiar to anyone who watched too much television in the nineties. Soon-to-be-Nickelodeon-star Danny Tamberelli is immediately recognizable as one of Huck's friends, briefly glimpsed in the opening minutes. Renee O'Connor, otherwise known as Xena's girlfriend, has a small role as one of the young women on the plantation. Character actor Curtis Armstrong, with his scratchy voice and diminutive appearance, has an amusing bit part as an intoxicated man. Anna Heche, meanwhile, is in what appears to be a standard role before showing a little more fire later in the story.
Sommers' film may only keep a small percentage of the episodes from Twain's book. However, Sommers includes another mechanic in hopes of keeping more of Twain's spirit in the film. Huck Finn has a running narration through most of the film. Though it gets more of Twain's writing in the movie, it's also pretty unnecessary. Sometimes, Huck is explaining stuff to us as it happens on screen. Only once does the narration really interact with the film in an interesting way. Huck is walking along, speaking voice-over, before a hand pulls him off-screen. His narration cuts off at the same time, which is a cute subversion.
Not all of Sommers' choices are that strong though. Occasionally, he employs some very tacky tricks. During one scene, he employs some slow motion, Huck Finn screaming for a fallen friend. Later on, while the young hero hides in a casket, there's an especially rough zoom. I'm not quite sure why the director would throw stuff like this in, as it badly contrasts against the rest of the movie's presentation. While “Adventures of Huck Finn” is always nice to look at, it's also a bit bland visually. The film doesn't distinguish itself nearly enough.
Adding to the movie's handsome quality is a score from Bill Conti. Conti mixes regional music with bigger themes. Southern strings and bugle horns make up Huck's theme, providing a feeling of youthful fun while also staying true to the deep south setting. The weightier aspects of the movie are hinted at with the score's more sweeping side. Much bigger brass and pounding drums add a historical element, suitable to the film's period setting. The two sides exist side-by-side nicely, building up the different tones of the movie.