Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Animated "Tom Sawyer" (2000) a diamond in the rough
It's refreshing to see a more honest view of things. Take "Tom Sawyer" and his companion "Huckleberry Finn" from 19th Century literature. Those were the days of one-room schools. Kids of varying ages would be in the same classroom. Mark Twain's heroic characters reacted to school like it was some bad-tasting medicine. Twain's novels brought out this attitude vividly.
Tom Sawyer attends school grudgingly in the animated "Tom Sawyer" that came out in 2000. Huck Finn doesn't attend school at all. You would think there's a "moral of the story" in this. You'd think the boys would be punished for dissing school. In today's framework of thinking, such consequences would be a must. George W. Bush told us about "no child left behind." The phrase would puzzle our 19th Century heroes out of Twain's imagination.
Sawyer and Finn lived a hardscrabble life in which education seemed a far-away ideal. The stories could have presented education as a desirable ideal. Look at those little urchins, how more civilized they could be. But there's no such message. Education is something that kids, especially girls, can accept with limited enthusiasm, in a manner of "doing your duty." But Tom and Huck with their adventures pay no mind to school with its structure and discipline. Their free-spiritedness is something to be celebrated. The shackles of formal education are unnecessary. They're a burden. So, let's live for the present.
Tom and Huck with such attitudes seem to reflect the attitudes behind the forming of America. Certainly the attitudes accompanied the expansion of civilization west. Self-reliance is a focus of the American credo. We needn't take marching orders in classrooms from autocratic teachers guided by detached and self-interested bureaucracies. Hooray for Tom and Huck! They'd rather be fishing.
They relished "playing hooky," a term that now seems archaic, like "wearing the dunce's cap" (and sitting in the corner). Discipline. Tom and Huck would have none of it. Their raisin d'etre was freedom. How about that for being a cornerstone of America?
Twain's view of life and America had lots of admirers. He was an iconic writer, projecting his views from America's big and burgeoning Midwest.
Opening door to Twain's world
The animated "Tom Sawyer" came to us from MGM Animation. It's a wonderful tool for getting children interested in Twain's work. I have it on VHS tape. I watched it again yesterday and found it wonderful.
The movie did not make a big splash, as it went direct to video. That's a shame. The movie is an adaptation of Mark Twain's classic book "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." The story line goes off in some of its own directions. No matter, many of the plot elements of the book are repeated or reflected here. The movie is a great jumping-off point for reading the book. The animation quality is terrific.
The characters are animals! There's a term for this: "anthropomorphic." Tom Sawyer is a cat, Huckleberry Finn a fox. Tom's love interest Becky Thatcher is a cat. The "bad guy" is "Injurin' Joe" (not "Injun Joe" as in the book), and he's a big menacing black bear! Hank Williams Jr. and Kevin Michael Richardson provide the voice of "Injurin' Joe."
Hank Williams Jr.! We haven't heard much about this rustic and rowdy guy since he got into trouble on Fox News' "Fox and Friends." He criticized Barack Obama using a Nazi analogy. Ol' Hank seemed a little incoherent in that whole interview. It's unfortunate he stumbled into such unacceptable wording, because he was a unique celebrity from a storied family. "Are you ready for some football?"
Country music weaved in
The animated "Tom Sawyer" is a showcase for country music. This vehicle works beautifully. The songs can almost make you misty at a couple points. It's like a country music version of "The Wizard of Oz," with characters involved in the same kind of adventure.
Lee Ann Womack sings as "Becky Thatcher." Rhett Akins is the heroic Tom Sawyer. Mark Wills is the sidekick "Huckleberry Finn."
A roster of big names was involved with this. Betty White is the voice of "Aunt Polly." Don Knotts is "Mutt Potter." Waylon Jennings is "Judge Thatcher."
I guess the big names couldn't propel this movie past "direct to video" status. How unfortunate. Groping for explanations, I have to weigh the theory that maybe the movie was "politically incorrect" in how it presented its heroes, eschewing school and paying no penalty for this.
Can't we just accept this as fun fiction? I don't think there's anything wrong showing kids as triumphant despite scorning school. Kids can develop anxiety thinking that high achievement in school, i.e. showing deference to some boring windbag teacher, is a prerequisite for finding success.
My own theory is that tech advancement might be making formal education less important, not more! The captains of industry are going to organize their jobs in such a way that employee "skills" are going to be less vital, not more, thus they can pay a lower wage. Let the workers press buttons that have pictures on them, not numbers or words.
We might eventually sense a triumph of the ethos represented by good ol' Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Live for today! Go fishing if you'd like.
Mark Twain's book came out in 1876 and shows a boy growing up along the Mississippi River. Twain gives us the fictional town of St. Petersburg, inspired by Hannibal MO where Twain lived. Tom falls in love with Becky Thatcher, the new girl in town.
The kids joke about how they're "engaged" to each other. Becky learns that Tom has been previously "engaged" to Amy Lawrence. Becky is based on the real-life Laura Hawkins, a friend of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain). Twain wrote the "Huckleberry Finn" story in 1884.
The story. . .
The animated movie begins with Tom Sawyer (the cat) skipping school - hooray! - to join Huck the fox who is fishing. Tom spots Becky, whereupon his priorities change! So, he ends up at school where he can be by Becky, but this causes distress for Amy Lawrence, who is a more common type of girl - "tomboyish" in her charm. (I kind of liked "tomboys" when I was young.)
Tom's pet frog "Rebel" disrupts the class. Is the name "Rebel" an extension of Southern culture? I suspect so. So is country music. I can live with these trappings to an extent. Actually, the late 1990s were a time when I developed a strong interest in country music, even writing some of my own songs (e.g. "There Must be Snow in Heaven"). I experienced the humility that 99 per cent of songwriters experience.
The frog "Rebel" disrupts class, so there's early dismissal. Tom tries to sneak a kiss with Becky but her father, "Judge Thatcher," stops her. In Twain's literature, Judge Thatcher has a minor role in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" but a major one in "Huckleberry Finn."
The next day, Tom has to paint a house as punishment for what happened in school. "Aunt Polly" makes him do this. The clever Tom gets his friends to do the work for him. Tom and Huck go treasure hunting that night. They come upon "Injurin' Joe" and his friend "Mutt Potter" uncovering a chest of gold. "Deputy Bean" also comes upon this scene. Joe murders Bean, frames Mutt for the crime and captures Rebel (the frog).
The next day after school, Tom and Becky get "engaged." Then, Becky and Amy join in singing "One Dream" about their shared love of Tom. Alas, "Mutt" (Don Knotts) is on death row. (We know he won't be killed.) Injurin' Joe pursues the hero boys but is unsuccessful. The boys then celebrate by singing the wonderful "Friends for Life." It's a tearjerker, IMHO.
But Tom and Huck are feared dead and a funeral service is organized. Yes, Tom and Huck show up at their own funeral. They're able to testify against Joe at the last minute, and can thus save Mutt. This infuriates Injurin' Joe who again pursues the boys with his huge and aggressive presence. Joe gets pulled away by a raging river. Meanwhile Mutt is freed. The boys are hailed as heroes.
Tom talks Becky into exploring a cave. They get lost. Becky loses hope. Tom would never lose hope, except maybe in school! He sings the charming "Light at the End of the Tunnel."
They find the treasure, yes, but "Joe" re-emerges to threaten them. The townspeople (or animals) are out looking for the kids. having been tipped off by Amy. Tom with Huck's help subdues Joe. Everyone gets reunited. At the end, Amy is Huck's girlfriend. Becky gets Tom. Our heroes are the boys who "play hooky." How about that? There's a picnic at the end and Tom has visions of another treasure hunt.
The story is all about America, wouldn't you say?
My friend Brent Waddell says I should wear a white formal ensemble, just as Twain did, since I'm a writer. I'll consider it (after I lose some weight).
Before entering the cave, Tom says to Becky "It's too dangerous for girls." To which Becky says: "You've got a lot to learn about girls."
Twain named his "Tom Sawyer" character after a San Francisco fireman who he met in 1863. The two often drank and gambled together.
Those talking animals
Entertainment history is filled with anthropomorphic animals. When I was a kid, some friends nicknamed me "Chilly Willy" after the anthropomorphic penguin.
As a child I watched "Mighty Mouse" cartoons on Saturday morning TV. This was the superhero mouse created by the Terrytoons studio as a parody of Superman. The character first appeared in 1942 and was in 80 theatrical films.
"Mighty Mouse" was on TV from 1955 (my year of birth) through 1967 on CBS Saturday mornings. There were two later revivals. Comics and other media celebrated the character, based on an animal with no redeeming qualities.
We remember an opera type of backdrop with "Mighty Mouse," which reflected Mario Lanza's popularity. The mouse's typical foes were non-descript cats - remember them? The deceased comic Andy Kaufman used Mighty Mouse as a prop for one of his best-known routines. He'd lip-synch "Here I come to save the day," opera-style.
The animated "Tom Sawyer" presents the anthropomorphic model in the most charming way. It presents the American spirit of being totally unbridled in one's aspirations, not even being encumbered by school and its boredom and frequent irrelevance! School boundaries mean nothing to Tom and Huck, and they triumph totally. A bad example? Some of our leaders, and parents, might say as much today. I obviously don't.
I'd probably be better off if I had been excused from school after the eighth grade.
Today when school gets canceled because of weather, we feel that day absolutely must get "made up." Such total foolishness. The employers of tomorrow won't want employees who are "well educated." They will want employees who will work cheap. Let's be honest. Being honest is what this blog is all about.
Hats off to "Tom and Huck," and good luck fishing!
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org