Retro Review: ‘Tom and Huck’

During the 1990’s Jonathan Taylor Thomas was arguably the top young star in show business. Given that the platform for his success was the TV show Home Improvement on the Disney-owned ABC, it is safe to say the House of Mouse realized the star power they held. The stories of Mark Twain have long been tied to Disney in some way. There is a fan favorite Tom Sawyer Island at some of their theme parks and a few years before they even produced an acclaimed adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It made perfect sense in 1995 to send JTT down the Mighty Mississippi, alongside fellow child star Brad Renfro, in a new version of Twain’s other classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, only with the more marketable title Tom and Huck.

While his aunt tries to turn Tom Sawyer into a respectable young member of society, the he is too much of a troublemaker. On top of this, he is very clever to boot. Sawyer has found a kindred spirit with the forest-dwelling loner Huck Finn. Together they witness a grave robbing go wrong, which results in Injun Joe murdering a man and framing Tom’s friend, the good-hearted drunk Muff Potter. When Joe learns what they saw, he naturally goes after them with a murderous vengeance. On the flip side Tom and Huck know he got a treasure map during this grave-robbing escapade and they are looking to take it off his hands. But are two young mischief-makers able to stay outsmart a murderous criminal.

While the film is obviously tailored towards the young 1990’s crowd, Tom and Huck remains incredibly true to its 1876 source material. Director Peter Hewitt does so by bringing a breath of fresh air to the story while remaining true to what worked for over a century. The film features fun new takes on all the familiar classic moments from the fun of white washing a fence to the duo witnessing their own funeral. This shows a certain brilliance as Hewitt & screenwriter/producer Stephen Sommers  have a strong grasp on the timeless nature of the source material, but also how to translate it for a brand new generation who probably would not be bothered to put down their Sega Game Gear to even look at the Mississippi River. Years later Sommers would once again show audiences that he can bring a fresh take to timeless source material when he spearheaded the fan favorite remake of The Mummy.

As many who grew up during this decade know, Jonathan Taylor Thomas shot to fame as the smart sarcastic Randy on the sitcom Home Improvement. His performance there should put to rest any doubts that he could pull off the fast wit and cleverness needed to bring Tom Sawyer to life. Elijah Wood was approached to reprise his role from 1993’s The Adventures of Huck Finn but scheduling prevented this from happening. This is a double-edged sword as it would have been neat to see the two films intertwined, but on the other Brad Renfro proves to be a scene-stealer as Huck Finn. His brooding, effortless coolness proves a great pairing to Taylor’s energetic mischievousness and he manages the accent far better than his co-star.

I have always had a soft spot for Disney’s adaptations of literary action/adventure classics, from Treasure Island to The Three Musketeers. Despite its outward dressings of a too-cool-for-school vibe, Tom and Huck fits comfortably among this crowd. It has enough of a cool factor for young viewers while also containing everything readers have loved about Mark Twain’s work.