Francis Coppola reportedly said that he named his film BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA after finding, to his surprise, that nobody had ever actually filmed the novel despite the scores of films incorporating its vampire leading character. This unexceptional Disney filming of the American classic
illustrates why there probably never will be an equivalent "Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Writer-director Stephen Sommers (writer of GUNMEN) begins by omitting any mention of Huck's previous adventure with Tom Sawyer, merely dropping Finn (THE GOOD SON co-star Elijah Wood) into the home of Widow Douglas (Dana Ivey), who has been trying to civilize him. Huck's itinerant Pap Finn
(BEAUTY AND THE BEAST's Ron Perlman) appears and kidnaps Huck in a drunken rage after learning that his late wife has willed all her money to Huck. Huck escapes, making it appear as though he's been murdered and "lights out" to Jackson Island--on the Mississippi River.
There he encounters Douglas' slave Jim (Courtney B. Vance), who has run away after learning that Douglas means to sell him. Jim plans to make his way down river to the junction of the Ohio River and from there to the slavery-free state of Ohio. A Southerner, Huck goes against what he thinks is
his better judgment by aiding Jim. Readers of Twain's novel will recognize their detours along the way, leading them to scalawags The Duke (Robbie Coltrane) and The King (Jason Robards) and their attempt to swindle an inheritance. Huck thwarts the plot and turns over his reward from the grateful
family to Jim, who has been freed by Douglas as part of her will upon her death.
So rich and vast--yet told with breathtaking economy--is Twain's masterwork that it would probably be better suited to adaptation as a mini-series than a feature film. Better yet, don't adapt it at all. Twain's use of language has hardly been bettered in its sheer narrative brilliance as well as
its lyrical evocation of river life. Yet, it's Twain's language that is probably the most noticeable casualty in Sommers' script. Huck's dialog and monologs are liberally adapted to 20th century tastes and to tie together the sprawling narrative. As might be expected, Jim is even more aggressively
revised to modern politically correct standards.
Twain would also have trouble recognizing the pacing of Sommers' film. Huck invites viewers to kick off their shoes and relax, but there's barely time for that before the film hits the ground running and never lets up. Again, this is a mixed virtue. Twain's "Finn" actually doesn't have much of a
plot. It's tied together by its characters and, most importantly, by the river itself, which, like Huck, passes through "civilization" without being of it. However, Twain uses Huck's encounters with the civilized world to illustrate how well-justified he is in choosing the way of the river. By
keeping the action slick and fast-moving, Sommers blunts much of Twain's well-aimed cynicism towards civilized behavior even as he also seems, oddly, to reduce the small kindnesses Huck encounters along his way by reducing much of Twain's large, colorful supporting cast to flat comic foils for
Sommers' cast is able enough, especially Wood, a terrific actor. Even though Sommers seems to have had "Dennis the Menace" more than Twain in mind, Wood wisely underplays the character's strutting mischievousness going, more successfully than not, for something more genuine and less easily
definable. Downplaying is also Vance's strong suit in making his "new, improved" Jim less jarringly anachronistic than he might have been. Disappointingly, Coltrane and Robards never click as well together as they might have, perhaps given the script, which plays up their villainy at the expense
of comedy. The expressive cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (SCHINDLER'S LIST) comes closest to evoking the subtle interplay of light and darkness in Twain's tale. But on the whole, this is yet another literary adaptation that does little beyond creating a yearning to return to the source work.
(Violence, mild profanity.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: PG
- Review: Francis Coppola reportedly said that he named his film BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA after finding, to his surprise, that nobody had ever actually filmed the novel despite the scores of films incorporating its vampire leading character. This unexceptional Disney f… (more)