Saturday, July 13, 2013

Movie Review: Back to Hannibal - The Return of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun mystery as an excuse to revisit old friends
Cons: Fairly predictable and a bit too much aimed at kids
The Bottom Line
Revisit old friends
In this Disney Channel film
Enjoyable trip

Grown Up Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn Go Back to Hannibal to Free Jim

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, The Disney Channel was still a subscription TV station, but I can remember living for their almost monthly previews and recording as many movies as I could.  This included their Disney Channel original movies, and one of those was Back to Hannibal: The Return of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  I watched the movie again recently, and it is still a fun one.

Naturally, there are several references to the famous books written about these characters by Mark Twain.  You just need a passing familiarity with them to get most of the references, and even then you can still follow the main story.

It’s been years since those last stories took place, and the freed slave Jim Watson (Paul Winfield) is now working on the docks loading ships.  He’s doing this late one foggy night when Lyle Newman (Shea Farrell), a manager for the freight company, is also down there.  When he cries out, Jim runs to investigate.  Unfortunately, Lyle is not to be found, and that leads to an accusation that Jim killed him and dumped him in the river.  Panicked, Jim runs.

And he runs to one person he knows he can trust – Huckleberry Finn (Mitchell Anderson).  Huck is struggling to be taken seriously as a reporter in St. Louis, but he is immediately willing to help his old friend.  Realizing that Jim is going to need a good lawyer, he contacts Tom Sawyer (Raphael Sbarge), who is tired of the small time cases he is being assigned as a lawyer in Chicago.

When the two return to Hannibal to try to clear Jim’s name, they are met with hostility.  The entire town already assumes he’s guilty.  Worse yet, Lyle was the husband of Becky Thatcher (Megan Follows), who is even less enthused to see Tom again in these circumstances.  Will they be able to free Jim before a lynch mob forms?

For those who have ever wondered what happened to these characters after they grew up, this is a fun movie.  Obviously, it’s only one person’s interpretation, but it works.  Tom Sawyer as a lawyer is really a no brainer.  Huck as a reporter takes a bit more thought, but considering he wrote the original story that bears his name, it’s not as big a stretch as it first appears.

Of course, the story is fairly predictable.  That includes the riff that has formed between Tom and Huck.  The whys and hows of the case are also fairly uncertain, but you know what the outcome will be.

But that doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t fun.  I like revisiting Hannibal and the characters, so it brings a smile to my face.  For the kids, there’s Marcus (Zachary Bennett), a young boy that the Widow Douglas (Val Safron) has taken in who winds up being a big help to Tom and Huck.

I appreciated how race was handled in this movie.  Instead of lecturing us, it is acknowledged as an issue that Tom and Huck must face in freeing Jim, but that is all.  It is there in the background, but we aren't beaten over the head with it.

The cast does a good job bringing their characters to life.  I did detect some accents that come and go, although some of that was intentional as the characters were trying to turn on the charm.  This is just a couple years after Megan Follows starred in the Anne of Green Gables movies.  And the Murder, She Wrote fan in me loves seeing William Windom as Judge Thatcher.  But the surprise in the cast to me was Raphael Sbarge, who I’ve gotten to know as Dr. Hopper on Once Upon a Time.  I enjoyed seeing him in something else.

Disney has finally released this as a Made On Demand DVD.  As such, the disc is just the movie in original full frame and stereo.  It looks and sounds okay, and fans will be happy to have it at all.

Because this movie is fun, and that’s all it really set out to be.  So if you want one person’s take on what happened to Mark Twain’s most famous characters, be sure to check out Back to Hannibal: The Return of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

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