This animated musical version of “Tom Sawyer,” essentially a direct-to-video release, finds an appropriate platform on the Nashville Network before appearing in video stores a week later. Punctuated with some mildly catchy country tunes sung by the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Mark Wills and other stars of the two-steppin’ variety, this classic Mark Twain adventure story manages to entertain despite a veneer of exceeding innocuousness. Tykes’ll like it.
In this version from MGM Animation, Tom Sawyer is a cat with a pet frog, his best friend Huckleberry is a fox (literally, not figuratively), and his nemesis Injurin’ Joe (note the change from politically incorrect Injun) is a bear. His love interest, Becky Thatcher, is another cat, albeit one dressed in very lady-like pink clothing with a matching pink parasol. Other than making sure Tom and his sweetheart are a same-species couple, the animal choices feel as arbitrary as can be: Tom could just as easily have been an aardvark, and his nemesis an elephant, which might have been visually more interesting. Besides, Tom doesn’t look much like a cat anyway. It doesn’t really matter; he’s still the mischievous moppet with the wild imagination and overflowing charm.
For all its lightheartedness, this version of Twain’s tale has a bite to it that original stories would never have the courage to chew on. Tom and Huck witness a murder, and are then put in the position of having to weigh their own safety against the possibility that an innocent man — or in this case, dog — will be executed. Of course, even the gallows scene is treated with a light touch, with Don Knotts voicing the Mutt who almost hangs but doesn’t really seem to care.
There’s nothing at all inventive about the animation or the adaptation — Chuck Jones and his Bugs Bunny takes on classics have infinitely more charm and depth. Adults will find that the few hidden visual jokes here aren’t very clever — a hangdog expression for Knotts, for example, or the fact that the lead is a Tom-cat. Still, there’s enough drama left from the source material and a fast-enough pace for the kids.The energetic tunes, like Charlie Daniels’ “Can’t Keep a Country Boy Down” and the original “Friends for Life,” give the pic a nice shot of adrenaline when it needs it, and the animation during these numbers becomes livelier and more fanciful to match. The romantic songs, “One Dream” in particular, are easily forgettable and inspire some genuinely cheesy images. The soundtrack, from MCA, stands little chance of taking off.