Life on the Mississippi as told by Mark Twain would seem to be perfect to film, but almost never is. This is probably because those who have read the books have the real movies in their heads. And those who have read the books include the filmmakers.
In "Tom and Huck" the latest screen appearance by Twain's delinquent sons of Hannibal, Mo., the filmmakers whitewash the fence but not the story: This is a dark, violent and rather slow-moving adaptation (free but not loose) of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," the prequel to "Huckleberry Finn" and a story loaded with stories.
There's rafting, murder, courtroom drama, cave-ins, treasure and romance (sans ickiness); lethal knife-throwing, politically incorrect portrayals of Native Americans (Injun Joe, played by Eric Schweig), town drunks (Muff Potter, played by Michael McShane) and the thickheaded/upstanding members of the community who are appalled by Tom and ostracize Huck. Although it's set in the 1840s, it has the timeless, Twainish and above all American themes of conformity, cynicism and hypocrisy.
That the film doesn't work so well is less the fault of the cast--Jonathan Taylor Thomas of TV's "Home Improvement" as Tom, and Brad Renfro ("The Client," "The Cure") as Huck--than it is the director's and writers' failure to ignite all this dramatic ammunition. They're inconsistently faithful to Twain and inconsistently successful. But the young actors aren't faultless, either.
Certain young performers on the Hollywood fast track just seem fated to wind up in Mark Twain adaptations. In the '30s, Jackie Coogan and abbreviated grown-up Mickey Rooney took their turns. In the '70s, it was Johnny Whitaker and auteur-to-be Ronny (Ron) Howard. Of late, the very talented Elijah Wood gave a perfectly acceptable, if pasteurized, portrayal of Huck ("The Adventures of Huck Finn").
"Tom and Huck" doesn't have quite the social conscience of "The Adventures of Huck Finn," but Tom Sawyer seems more natural a part for Thomas, hunk-idol of the pre-pubescent set and sitcom star (we'll say nothing about his co-starring role with Chevy Chase in "Man of the House"). He has the right cockiness for Tom, who was always a bit too clever for his own good, and the intelligence to rise above, if not too far above, the intellectual sluggishness of his surroundings.
It's not quite the same love match between Huck and Brad Renfro, whose Finn is more dullard than naif, and more ignorant than innocent. Huck Finn is Twain's greatest creation, the portrait of native intelligence led astray by superstition and unchallenged racism. He was not, however, thuggish, which is what Renfro makes him.
The point is, Huck is Tom without the advantages of village life, family and education--even if it's faulty and riddled with its own brand of ignorance. Twain saw them as two sides of a dubious coin--America in its primitive innocence, and enlightened corruption. Renfro and Thomas are considerably less than metaphorical, but they don't compensate by being particularly entertaining.
* MPAA rating: PG, for some villainous acts and mild language. Times guidelines: a bit dark and violent for younger children.
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'Tom and Huck'
Jonathan Taylor Thomas: Tom Sawyer
Brad Renfro: Huck Finn
Eric Schweig: Injun Joe
Charles Rocket: Judge Thatcher
Amy Wright: Aunt Polly
A Laurence Mark production, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc. Director Peter Hewitt. Producers Laurence Mark, John Baldecchi. Screenplay by Stephen Sommers and David Loughery, based on "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Editor David Freeman. Costumes Marie France. Music Stephen Endelman. Production design Gemma Jackson. Art director Michael Rizzo. Set designer Daniel Bradford. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.