Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Our rating: 4 out of 5
I remember the first time as a kid reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I thought it was quite a whip-cracking read. I loved laughing over Tom outsmarting all of his friends into painting the fence for his Aunt Polly. But if I thought Injun Joe was scary on the page, he's ten times worse on the big screen. Let me tell you, there's no one better to play Tom Sawyer than Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and this is a remake you'll never forget.
In the peaceful town of Hannibal, life is relatively normal... at least for the church-going, God-fearing folk. But Thomas Sawyer is another story. His twelve years of life has been devoted to adventure and one or two narrow scrapes. By nature, he's your average teenage boy who gets his kicks by weaseling his way around the affections of his caretaker, the well-meaning Aunt Polly, and pursuing romantically the beautiful Betky Thatcher (Rachael Leigh Cook), daughter of the new judge. Good friends with the town outcast and rebel-rouser, Huck Finn (Brad Renfro), Tom thinks he has it pretty good. But all of that is about to change. On a cold, stormy night the local coroner, Dr. Robinson, offers an old acquaintance the chance to earn some cash. He wants one of the local graves dug up, for purposes of his own. Injun Joe (Eric Schweig) agrees to the terms and several nights later he, the town drunk Muff Potter, and Dr. Robinson set out to turn up some earth. By chance, Tom and Huck are also in the area... "getting rid of warts." Injun Joe, in a fit of temper over the chest that they've retrieved from the grave, takes Muff's knife and murders the doctor. Horrified, the boys swear to one another they'll keep shut of what they've seen.
But then life takes an unexpected turn. Muff Potter, who was knocked unconscious in the scuffle, is blamed for the murder. Tom has been a long-time friend of Muff, even after everyone in town rejected him. He can't, in good conscience, let Muff hang for something he didn't do. But if they cross Injun Joe, the best knife fighter this side of the Mississippi, they'll be dead long before he's tracked down. To complicate things, he's in town, acting as a witness and claiming that he saw Muff kill the doc. Will Tom do what's right and endanger his life, or let an innocent man hang? Tom and Huck is one of those rare films that manages to be a little bit of everything. There's a taste of romance for the romantics at heart. There's a spine-chilling chase through darkened caves for those of us who hunger for danger and excitement. It's a story about friendship, courage, and doing the right thing despite possible consequences. It's also a romance, an adventure, something of a mystery, and just plain old fashioned fun.
Overall my opinion of Disney is somewhat warped, but I have to admit that this time they pulled it off, even though viewers should be aware that the PG rating is at best misinformed. This film is far too scary and contains dark elements of murder and violence that are too intense for children. Hannibal has never been such a well-conceived and memorable town with a host of fun characters that appear and reappear, if only to give the story a sense of charm. Right off we respect Judge Thatcher, are a little leery of the Widow Douglas, and snicker at the pious schoolmaster who unknowingly has allowed himself to be outsmarted by none other than our playful little hero. "Oh, no, please," Tom begs with obvious horror when called to the rug, "don't make me sit with the girls," which is, of course, precisely where he wants to be. With a chuckle, the miserly old man sends Tom directly into the first open seat... which just happens to be next to the beautiful Becky Thatcher.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this one out, which is what makes the film fun. It's not obvious enough that kids pick it up, but has a lot of appeal for adults as well. Jonathan Taylor Thomas is perfect as Tom -- there couldn't have been a better cast in the history of filmmaking. He's got just enough bad-boy look about him, mixed with charm and a big pair of baby blues, to match wit for wit our imagined conjuring of Tom Sawyer. Brad Renfro plays well as Huck, but the second-best lead in this film is Rachael Leigh Cook's Becky, whether it be accepting Tom's cow-eyed proposal or giving him a punch in the jaw. A dark and creepy cemetery atmosphere lend themselves to a violent scene in which a man is stabbed several times below camera level. Another man is knifed in the back (briefly seen), and Injun Joe throws Tom around several times. Twice people are knocked unconscious. The violence doesn't push the limits of the rating, but the suspense and darker elements of the plot do, with a scary trek through the caves in the dark, and a courtroom scene that turns violent. There are also jokes about hanging, some meanness toward a prisoner (mostly verbally), and the fact that Tom manages to be naughty without ever being truly punished for it.
One immature peck of the lips makes up the worse of sensual content, but the film does have some language. One or two abuses of deity are all that pop up in the two hours' time, but occasionally profanity litters the script, often spoken by Tom and Huck. Still, this production lends itself to an imaginative and memorable trip to the days of Tom Sawyer and his old pal Huckleberry.