The samefolks who lined up last year for “The Adventures of Huck Finn” and “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” likely will be willing to plunk down additional B.O. bucks for this latest live-action adventure from Disney. “Tom and Huck,” an unremarkable but inoffensive version of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” should do respectable business as a holiday-season theatrical release. It will fare even better as homevid fare farther down the river.
Sitcom regular Jonathan Taylor Thomas, last seen on the bigscreen in Disney’s “Man of the House,” is ingratiating as Tom Sawyer, the precocious lad who just can’t help getting into trouble in Hannibal, Mo., circa 1845. To be sure, Thomas doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable here as he did in the contempo comedy “Man of the House,” but even his occasionally anachronistic mannerisms and speech patterns are not so distracting as to spoil the effect of his performance.
Brad Renfro (“The Client”) is much more at ease in period clothing and behavior as Huckleberry Finn, Tom’s footloose friend and partner in mischief. Together, the two young actors develop a credible give-and-take, especially when their characters argue about responsibility in the wake of their witnessing a murder.
The serviceable script by Stephen Sommers (director of Disney’s recent “Jungle Book” and “Huck Finn”) and David Loughery is fairly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Twain’s original. During a latenight visit to a graveyard, Tom and Huck inadvertently witness the murder of the local undertaker at the hands of the villainous Injun Joe (Eric Schweig). Huck, who has had unpleasant dealings with Joe in the past, forces Tom to vow never to reveal what they’ve seen. But Tom finds this promise hard to keep after Muff Potter (Michael McShane), the easygoing town drunk, is charged with the murder.
Anyone who has read Twain’s novel, or viewed any of the many earlier filmizations of “Tom Sawyer,” will know that Joe killed the undertaker to obtain the map to a legendary treasure. Tom and Huck plot to clear Muff of murder charges without breaking their vow by stealing the map from the villain who stole it.
This keys the pic’s funniest sequence, which has the boys risking life and limb while trying to snatch the incriminating evidence with the use of a fishing hook.
Here and elsewhere, director Peter Hewitt manages to generate some genuine suspense. At its best, “Tom and Huck” is exciting enough for TV-jaded youngsters and pleasant enough for grown-ups. Some parents might object, however, to acouple of violent deaths that, while faithful to Twain’s narrative, may distress small children.
Ticket buyers who haven’t read Twain’s novel may be a bit confused as to why the stern-faced lady played by Marian Seldes exerts so much moral authority in Hannibal. She isn’t identified by name until the final 10 minutes of the movie — she’s the Widow Douglas — and is never developed as a character. She makes a commanding impression only through the sheer force of Seldes’ acting.
Other supporting players of note include Amy Wright as Tom’s loving but exasperated Aunt Polly, Rachael Leigh Cook as the willful Becky Thatcher, Michael McShane as the hapless Muff Potter and Charles Rocket in an atypically serious performance as Judge Thatcher.
As Injun Joe, perhaps the least politically correct villain to grace a U.S. release this year, Schweig relies more on spooky presence than anything else, but that’s more than enough. He is particularly effective in his first entrance under the opening credits, during a storm sequence photographed with strikingly desaturated color by Bobby Bukowski.
Bukowski, costumer Marie France and production designer Gemma Jackson do a first-rate job of evoking a strong period flavor. Pic was shot on location in Mooresville, Ala. The small town is showcased to good effect, and may very well attract the attention of other filmmakers seeking an authentic-looking 1840s locale.