Adventures of Huck Finn: Directed by Stephen Sommers

Disney’s idea to remake Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is an excellent one: every generation should have its own Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and David Copperfield.

Writer-director Stephen Sommers has made a literate and handsome film. However, the acting of the two leads never rises above the acceptable, failing to endow the tale with the electrifying and stirring mood that it deserves. Still, as a mainstay of modern American literature, Disney’s children film should make merry again at the box-office, domestically and internationally.

In the new version, of a book that has received many adaptations in film and TV, Elijah Wood stars as Huck Finn, a mischievous, roguish, and freewheeling kid, living with the widow Douglas (Dana Ivey). Curiously, Wood’s orchestration of his fake death and escape from his abusive, brute father is not as emotionally riveting as one remembers it from the book.

The film improves considerably once Wood encounters Jim (Courtney B. Vance), a runaway slave whose goal is to escape to the North so that he can eventually buy his family’s freedom. The two drifters strike a unique friendship as they start their mysterious, fateful journey down the Mississippi river.

The most colorful and entertaining sequences are those describing Wood and Vance’s fall into the clutches of two ruthless con men, The King (Jason Robards) and The Duke (Robbie Coltrane), Vance’s imprisonment, and his eventual flight to freedom.

Scripter Sommers has shrewdly limited the first-person narration to a minimum, letting the kaleidoscopic gallery of characters propel the tale forward to its logical conclusion. In tune with our times, Sommers centers his narrative on the interracial friendship, providing a thorough examination of the costs and rewards, joys and sorrows, of a morally complex bond.

Sommers’ adaptation renders the spirit of Mark Twain, a writer blessed with immense creative imagination for fleshing out dozens of colorful characters. Sommers’ direction, however, is uneven: the first half hour is oddly flat and not very engaging. But helmer’s work improves as the film progresses, and he is particularly good in rendering the life of a small rural town in the nineteenth century.

More problematic is the acting of the two leads. Elijah Wood is appealing, and he is especially effective when he needs to be sensitive and self-reflexive, but he may be too cute and too tame to play a wild “nature” boy; his performance lacks charge, the kind of brashness that Mickey Rooney brought to the role in l939. Courtney B. Vance, who has done such superb work on stage and in film (Hamburger Hill), is also a bit stiff and not expressive enough.

Fortunately, the two central roles are surrounded by a marvelous ensemble of supporting actors: the always brilliant Jason Robards as the con artist the Duke, Britisher Robbie Coltrane as his corrupt partner the King, Ron Perlman as the nasty Pap Finn, Dana Ivey as the Widow Douglas, and Laura Bundy as the precocious and suspicious girl Susan Wilks.

Huck Finn’s rich physical production captures the full dimensions of Twain’s novel. Shot on location in and around Natchez Mississippi, the look and tone of the era have been perfectly captured. Richard Sherman’s production design and Betsy Faith Heimann’s costumes fully realize the appropriate feel. The quality of Janusz Kaminski’s lensing is exquisite: his lighting of every scene is executed to maximum evocative effect.
Slightly better than Michael Curtiz’s 1960 or J. Lee Thompson’s 1974 adaptations, this Adventures of Huck Finn may prove to be an enjoyable experience for kids.