Ernest Hemingway once said that all American literature derived from a book called "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but you'd never know it from the new Disney "Adventures of Huck Finn." If all literature came from it, our great novelist would be ...Robert James Waller.
The Disney Huck Finn, earnest and bumbling, is as bland as the National Geographic photographer in Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County." He completely lacks that radical grace and darkness of the original boy, who was mean and real, just as the movie lacks the radical style of the book, which was the first novel to hear the true poetry of the American colloquial voice, and to begin to liberate our literature from the pretentious Latinate notions of refinement it had obtained in the academy. It did, in fact, make Hemingway and Faulkner possible, and it made Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker possible, too.
But as rude and bumptious a rapscallion as Twain's Huck was, Disney's Elijah Wood ("Avalon" and "Forever Young") never seems quite man enough to play a boy. He's an endearing child, very bright and sweet. And you want to hug him and give him lollipops and free rides on the merry-go-round, but Wood somehow lacks charisma as well as savagery. He seems too innocent and uncomplicated. He never resonates in a way that would make him memorable and cause moviegoers to seize him to their hearts. He's nobody's bad boy.
The movie, which checks in at nearly two hours long, goes to great lengths to evoke the rough-and-tumble frontier culture in the towns along the Mississippi before the Civil War; as an example of film craftsmanship, it ranks highly. We keep rounding bends and seeing ragged little outposts of "sivilization," or vast plantations, where the slaves bend and sweat to keep the ownership caste in silks. But after a bit, it's like that most hated of all boys' ordeals, the trip to the museum. Every little vignette is frozen off behind glass; the figures barely move.
The script, by writer-director Stephen Sommers, follows the book in an orderly fashion. It's at its most powerful in the early going, when events are freighted with Oedipal passion. Huck, living unhappily with two righteous women in a prosperous river town in Missouri, is kidnapped by his mean old Pap (Ron Perlman), who seizes him not out of love, but because the boy has inherited his mother's money. Pap means to kill Huck, but he gets too liquored up to do the job, and so Huck escapes to go freely down the mighty Mississip.
Early on he meets Jim (Courtney B. Vance), the slave who's escaped from the very house from which Huck was kidnapped. What a devilishly hard character Jim is to play in 1993! It would clearly be inappropriate as well as offensive to depict him as the child-man of Twain's imagination, but at the same time if he becomes an anachronism of political correctness, much of the magic of the piece dies anyway. Vance tries to walk a middle ground between innocence and virtue but isn't really up to the task, and Sommers doesn't give him much guidance. I kept thinking that Dennis Haysbert, of "Love Field," had more strength and wisdom and implacable dignity; he would have made a great Jim. You feel Vance holding back on his seething intelligence and trying to get the audience to like him for him. His relationship with Huck never really clicks.
And the novel's picaresque structure doesn't help; it drifts down river, pausing for adventures, but it doesn't have time to flesh anything out. As soon as Huck and Jim arrive, they leave. Only the last section, with Robbie Coltrain and Jason Robards as two hustlers -- the Duke and the King (nobody today could begin to explain Twain's original usage of "Dauphin" so Sommers just changes it) -- is an episode given flesh and definition, but it still feels rushed.
Of course the river itself is metaphorical: it stands for the journey in Huck's conscience, his movement from the belief that slavery is normal and Jim is subhuman to his realization that slavery is evil and all men are just people. That isn't lost entirely, it's merely blunted and diffused, because this Huck isn't complex enough to sustain it. It's a movie that makes you hunger to light out for the territory. As you watch it, you're thinking, "I've been there before."
"The Adventures of Huck Finn"
Starring Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance.
Directed by Stephen Sommers.
Released by Disney.