Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? An innocuous retelling of the Twain story.
What did I get? I saw this when I was a kid. I vaguely remember young Jodie Foster and a redheaded youngster playing Tom, a mood of easygoing mischief. Easy times on the lazy Mississippi. That’s about it. I’d forgotten it was a musical, but that was also true of our last movie, Charlotte’s Web, so I’m not reliable in such matters. The only real question with this movie was, would it be pleasant and forgettable, or something worse? Well, it isn’t any worse. It does achieve pleasant forgettableness. All the components seem perfectly fine, but it never really coalesces into anything more fun than that.
Poor Tom Sawyer. It’s a nice novel and all, but it’s so well-behaved and conventional next to the darker, more complex, and more stirring Huckleberry Finn. Nobody ever wants to ban Tom Sawyer. I’m tempted to say that Tom Sawyer is the Beatles to Huck Finn‘s Rolling Stones, but that’s not right; it’s more like Tom Sawyer is Joan Baez and Huck Finn is Bob Dylan.
Tom is presented as an untrustworthy liar and rapscallion, which is funny because in the sequel, Twain took Huckleberry Finn so much further in that direction; Huck who is so much more rootless, more poignant, outside of organized society. Tom by comparison is domesticated; he at least has Aunt Polly and flirts with Becky Thatcher. It’s purest Americana; you just know that Tom, despite his misbehaving, will grow up to be a tolerably respectable townsperson. His path is clear. Really, he’s Bart Simpson, a wild troublemaker who comes from a stable family, has a reliably good heart, and always turns into a softy when it counts.
How many of you remember the plot of Tom Sawyer? I hardly remembered it at all. In addition to the famous whitewashing scene, there’s some genuine peril involving Injun Joe; at one point it is assumed that Tom has died, so he gets to witness his own funeral.
As for the movie, it was produced by Reader’s Digest, and it would have been better if it had been a Disney joint, even with the tired Disney magic of the 1970s. The songs (music by John Williams!) are quite OK — “Gratifaction,” the song from the whitewashing scene, is probably the best one. Tom is played by a cheeky redhead named Johnny Whitaker; Becky is played by Jodie Foster, aged about 10. Those expecting to catch glimmerings of her future genius will definitely find little to contemplate, but she is capable and cute. The “names” in the cast are Warren Oates and Celeste Holm. Everyone is just fine, and no more than that. A strong sense of ordinariness clings to the movie, and it doesn’t stick in the mind. It’s a pretty good children’s movie.
What here smacks of 1973? Not much comes to mind. Reader’s Digest, perhaps?
IMDB score: 6.3
My score: 5
Director: Don Taylor
Writers: Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman
Starring: Johnny Whitaker, Celeste Holm, Warren Oates, Jeff East, Jodie Foster, Lucille Benson, Henry Jones, Noah Keen, Richard Eastham, Dub Taylor
IMDB synopsis: Tom Sawyer and his pal Huckleberry Finn have great adventures on the Mississippi River, pretending to be pirates, attending their own funeral, and witnessing a murder.