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Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn

April 7, 2015
Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn poster

Within the first five minutes of watching Tom Saywer & Huckleberry Finn, I was prepared to hate it. Two moppets affecting atrocious southern accents rush in and cajole an aged Mark Twain — portrayed by no less than Val Kilmer is some truly awful makeup — to tell them a story about days when the Mississippi river past their sleepy Missouri town was thick with riverboats.

I never really understood this impulse to inject Twain himself as a framing device into adaptations of his stories. Only the bizarre 1985 claymation feature The Adventures of Mark Twain seems to have done much good with it, and it’s easily the weakest part of this movie. But when Twain harrumphs into recounting this version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it does get a little better. All the classic pieces of the story are in place, with few unwise embellishments. By the end of the movie, the biggest complaint is how phoned-in, boring, and unnecessary it all feels.

Of course we’ve got Tom (Joel Courtney), begrudgingly accepting the constraints of school and civilization, if only because that’s where all the girls like Becky Thatcher (Katherine McNamara) are. Huck (Jake T. Austin) lives the unsupervised life Tom wishes for, and they get into all sorts of trouble together.

In particular, Tom follows Huck to a graveyard one night, where they accidentally witness a murder. The wrong man is arrested the next day, but Tom speaks up at the trial that the killer was really Injun Joe (Kaloian Vodenicharov), who promptly escapes with a grudge against Tom.

I will give adapter/director Jo Kastner credit for not trying to water down Injun Joe’s character, or to talk around his name. That’s the way Twain wrote it; that’s the way it would have been in antebellum Missouri; and that’s the way it should stand in an honest adaptation, ugly and racist as it might come off. Then again, Kastner seems to be a German producer who hasn’t made a film in twenty years, so maybe the idea to bowdlerize the name just didn’t occur to him. The one clip from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he includes at the very end is too short for him to court even worse trouble.

Overall, Kastner proceeds strictly by-the-numbers, depicting all the key scenes of the story adequately enough, but with no real flair or imagination. It should keep children entertained, but it’s no substitute for the wonderful texture of Twain’s prose. If you use this to introduce your kids to his stories, be sure to follow up with the real book.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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