April 12, 1993 12:00 PM

Elijah Wood, Courtney Vance

Here finally is a movie version of Huck that’s big, fast, funny, poignant and substantial enough to do justice to the peerless Mark Twain novel. Wood, Mel Gibson’s little foil in Forever Young, makes a knowing, mischievous, resourceful Huck. Vance is an affecting Jim, particularly important since director Stephen Sommers emphasizes the abolitionist subplot of Twain’s story. And though the metaphorical aspects of the book’s third central character—the Mississippi River—don’t translate onscreen, the scenery, mostly around Natchez, Miss., is pretty as well as authentic.

Sommers gets into the raft adventure with little preamble, barely taking time to establish the evils from which Jim and Huck are running: the pain and indignity of slavery for Jim and a bullying father for Huck. The director guides Wood through an understated performance as an independent, rascally kid whose penchant for tall-tale-spinning is his biggest talent. He extracts the subtleties from Twain’s character, never portraying him as merely cute. Wood and Vance also convincingly sell the friendship and loyalty between Huck and Jim—there are few better lessons in brotherhood—but rarely lapse into pedantry. As Roger Miller did in his stage musical Big River, Sommers has remembered that our greatest novel is also a lot of fun. (PG)

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