The sibling songwriting duo of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman had a huge impact on family entertainment in the ’60s, writing songs for projects including the blockbuster musical Mary Poppins (1964) and Disney’s theme parks (the Shermans wrote “It’s a Small World”). Their dominance of the family-film game ebbed in the ’70s, but not before they expanded their creative purview to include screenwriting. The Shermans wrote the scripts and a brace of original songs for Tom Sawyer, adapted from Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, adapted from Twain’s revered 1884 sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; both films were produced by Arthur P. Jacobs, whose previous entry into the realm of movie musicals was 1967’s super-expensive Doctor Dolittle.
Given their big-budget pedigree, it’s unsurprising that both Twain adaptations look fantastic, boasting authentic production design and slick photography. However, as Jacobs discovered with the disastrous Dolittle, musicals are all about the songs, and the Twain adaptations are mostly tone-deaf. Plus, although the underlying narratives are timeless, the Shermans make such vapid adaptive choices that the stories end up seeming contrived and stiff.
Tom Sawyer is the better of the two movies, but only marginally so. Johnny Whitaker (from TV‘s Family Affair) plays Tom in all of the familiar adventures: convincing his friends to paint a fence; witnessing a murder with his buddy, Huck Finn (Jeff East); falling in love with a pretty young neighbor (Jodie Foster); testifying about the murder in court; and enduring a scary underground confrontation with crazed killer Injun Joe (Kunu Hank). Whitaker is cute and enthusiastic, but not skillful enough to create the illusion of Tom’s preternatural cleverness. Therefore, the dramatic heavy lifting falls to screen veterans Celeste Holm (as Tom’s long-suffering Aunt Polly) and Warren Oates (as Tom’s drunkard friend Mutt). As for the songs, the Shermans’ style of cutesy wordplay and syrupy sentimentality clashes with Twain’s thorny sarcasm. The underscore is actually better than the tunes, thanks to the participation of composer John Williams, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work but did not return for the sequel. Ultimately, the most irritating aspect of Tom Sawyer is that it’s decent whenever people aren’t singing, because the plot is full of exciting events and the production values are terrific.
Ironically, Huckleberry Finn has the key element that eluded Tom Sawyer (a great song), but it’s a lesser film in every other regard. Part of the problem is the odd plotting of Twain’s novel, which has confounded literary critics for generations; though ostensibly the brilliant parable of runaway ragamuffin Huck (East) bonding with runaway slave Jim (Paul Winfield), the story is episodic and burdened with an infuriating third act (which the Shermans omit in favor of something more poetic). As in the first picture, East is competent but not special, and he’s pretty much the whole show, since the formidable Winfield is kept offscreen for a great deal of the movie. Even the presence of lively supporting player Harvey Korman (as a con man who calls himself “The King”) isn’t enough to break the overall tedium. On the plus side is that great song, “Freedom,” which is sung over the opening credits by Roberta Flack. Although “Freedom” eventually gets buried in maudlin strings, the song is a simple reflection of the story’s main theme, and therefore a welcome musical change from the gimmicky trifles that permeate these tiresome films.
Tom Sawyer: FUNKY
Huckleberry Finn: LAME