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THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN (1993)
It's hard to know who might be the targeted audience for this seventh film adaptation of Mark Twain's classic novel. Some of the material is simply too scary for kids yet this rendition has also been stripped of much of the caustic bite that has made it such an enduring favorite of adults. The movie is being marketed as entertainment for the whole family but it's likely to satisfy neither parent nor child. The Adventures of Huck Finn is not a total bust however, despite being a hard sell.
The focus of this retelling is on the adventure part of the story. Packed with well-told action, the movie moves along briskly as Huck (Elijah Wood) and runaway slave Jim (Courtney B. Vance) make their way down the Mississippi. The focus on adventure comes at the expense of Huck's keen observation of the foibles of adults and “sivilization.” Oh, he learns a thing or two about morality and loyalty from Jim but it's never more complex than notions like “slavery is bad.”
This may be indicative of the same impulse that truncated Huckleberry to Huck, stripping the character down to a convenient road handle instead of a literary allusion. The character of Jim also suffers from this smoothing-over tendency. Though more than ably brought to life by Vance, Jim has been given a makeover to jibe with more modern sensibilities. This Jim is extremely well-spoken for an uneducated slave and, of course, the movie eschews the book's more racially offensive language. In all, Vance's Jim is a good character; he's just not Twain's character. As Huck, Wood is fun to watch -- he has an expressive face and a lively presence. In the latter half of the film, Robards and Coltrane have good hammy fun with their con men roles of the King and the Duke. Directing newcomer Sommers (who also wrote the screenplay) guides the proceedings with a visual flair and vigorous pacing. If you're bringing children to this, please take the PG rating to heart. Be prepared to explain why, at the film's outset, Huck's father kidnaps his son and tries to kill him. Make no mistake, this is not wholesome family entertainment. But where did we ever get the notion that Mark Twain was?
The story of Huck and Jim has been told in six or seven earlier movies, and now comes "The Adventures Of Huck Finn," a graceful and entertaining version by a young director named Stephen Sommers, who doesn't dwell on the film's humane message, but doesn't avoid it, either. The transformation of Huck is there on the screen, although much more time is devoted to the story's picaresque adventures, as Huck and Jim meet a series of colorful characters - including some desperate criminals, some feuding neighbors, and the immortal con men the King and the Duke.
Huck is played by Elijah Wood, who mercifully seems free of cuteness and other affectations of child stars, and makes a resolute, convincing Huck. The real Huck (based on a childhood friend of Twain's) was probably much tougher and had rougher edges, but Huck has been sanitized for years in the movies (just as the Widow Douglas tried to "sivilize" the original). Jim, the crucial character in the story, is played by Courtney B. Vance, a New York stage actor who is able to embody the enormous tact with which Jim guides Huck out of the thickets of prejudice and sets him on the road to tolerance and decency.
The supporting cast is uniformly splendid, especially Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane, as the King and the Duke, who impersonate visitors from England in an attempt to swindle two innocent sisters out of their inheritance. It was a little eerie, halfway through the movie, to realize that Twain wrote the original American road picture.
I read the book for the first time when I was 7, understanding every other word, and I have read it a dozen times since. For me, the best passages are those in which Huck and Jim are alone on the river, debating such curiosities as why the French speak a foreign language, and how many stars there are in the sky, and whether it is all right to steal fruits that are in season if you make a solemn vow not to steal fruits that are out of season. Twain punctuates these passages with lyrical descriptions of the mighty river, and of a thunderstorm that reminds him of barrels rolling down a giant staircase.
And then Huck and Jim drift onto the subjects of race and slavery, and Huck is bound to admit, after Jim explains it to him, that black people have the same feelings as everyone else, and are deserving of his respect. This process of Huck's conversion is one of the crucial events in American literature. Some cannot admire it and think it should not be taught in schools because Huck, like every boy of his time, used the "N" word. They are very short-sighted.
The movie, of course, doesn't use the word, nor does it really venture very far into the heart of Huck's transformation. It wants to entertain and fears to offend. But it is a good film with strong performances. Nothing in it is wrong, although some depths are lacking. I admired the performances, and Sommers' sense of time and place, and I hope the movie guides more people toward the book - which contains values that sometimes seem as rare today as when Jim was first teaching them to Huck.