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Huck goes Disney
on 29 August 2012
As can be seen from the reviews on this page, a great many people find this film very enjoyable. At the risk of arousing the ire of this movie's many devotees, however, I don't think this realisation really stands up.
To begin with, in conformity with the demands of political correctness, the 'n'-word has been excised from the dialogue completely. And although Courtney Vance performs his role superbly, the Jim he plays here is hardly even recognisable as Twain's character. This Jim is much more knowing than Twain's original, even manipulative - certainly there is no way that Huck (Elijah Wood) could play any trick on him in this version of the story. Elijah Wood is a great actor, but here he's too cute and well-scrubbed for Huck; besides being too young (Twain's Huck Finn is fourteen).
This is really the problem with so many film adaptations. It's a sobering thought that probably more people know the character of 'Huck Finn' from this Disney travesty than have read the original novel. Twain's Huck is dirty and dressed in rags - a river rat who smells of the river. But viewers don't want to see this, and in any case such a protagonist would outrage Disney's sense of middle class decency, so instead we get the loveable 'mischievous scamp', which is the one thing Twain's character is not. This, I think, is also why we get a younger 'Huck' - 14-year-olds who break the law and steal being felt as more threatening than 'mischievous'.
On the whole, the mood of the film is very 'light' and comedic, and the scenes succeed each other very rapidly - presumably for the benefit of a younger audience with a short attention span. The jaunty tone is assisted by an omnipresent light-hearted score which I found quite obtrusive. But the mood of the film is inconsistent, and the film occasionally lurches from light comedy to an excess of nail-biting melodrama. The lynching scene at the end seems particularly out of place for Disney's intended audience, the purpose of the violence being merely to ratchet up the tension as much as possible.
In Twain's novel, violence is always presented as horrifying - never as entertaining. When, for example, Buck is killed in Chapter 18, Huck as the narrator can scarcely bring himself to describe his experiences, and admits that he still has nightmares about the killing - that he's been mentally scarred by the violence he witnesses. By contrast, in this film violence is normally treated very casually, even as a source of humour - as when two young men are shot on Huck's arrival at Phelps Landing, with the quip 'Welcome to America'. Needless to say this incident is not in Twain's original story (and neither is the lynching scene for that matter).
In contrast to its casual attitude towards violence, this production has a quite different attitude to even a hint of nudity. We live, of course, in puritanical times, where for any youngster to show a square inch of bare flesh throws people into moral hysteria, so this Huck wears shoes constantly, and (ridiculously) remains fully clothed, head to toe, when he takes a dip in the river on Jackson's Island. No skinny-dipping for Huck in this production.
To be fair, the film is frequently entertaining (especially in some of the comedic scenes) and does have some merits. I like the decision to include the digging up of Peter Wilks' body during the thunderstorm - though why with all the thunder and lightning there isn't even a single drop of actual rain is anyone's guess.
Ultimately, however, this movie has to rank as one of the least successful screen realisations of Huckleberry Finn, being too disjointed, too sugary sweet and too concerned with portraying a 'Huck' who conforms to middle class values. In the end, Twain's novel is just too subversive for Disney, and so what we get is a cop-out which reflects Disney's worldview rather than Twain's.