Huckleberry Finn and His Friends DVD review

Ryan revisits Huck Finn; an 80s schedule filler with a theme tune that lives in your head for eternity...

Huckleberry Finn. On DVD now. RRP £39.99.

I was once a firm believer in reincarnation. I would often have strange flashbacks to a previous life where I was a smart-alec kid growing up in nineteenth century Missouri. It was a peaceful, idyllic time, when living was easy and neighbours were friends. I lived in a humble clapboard house with my strict, bible-bashing Aunt Polly who dragged me to church on Sunday, and my best friend lived in a barrel with only a moth-eaten straw hat for company.

As it turns out, these weren’t past-life recollections at all, but merely hazy memories of eighties TV show Huckleberry Finn and His Friends.

A Canadian/German co-production adapted from two of Mark Twain’s most famous novels, Huck Finn (as I shall refer to it now for brevity’s sake) was a popular slot-filler on school holiday mornings, and the series was repeated several times throughout the eighties and nineties.

Even if you can’t remember much of the show from your childhood, the waltzing, infuriatingly catchy theme tune will be instantly familiar once you hear it again, and is the sort of melody that haunts you on sleepless nights, going around and around like a fairground ride…

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To say the pace of the storyline is slow would be an understatement – Huck Finn makes Murder She Wrote look like The Wire. In the first episode, Tom Sawyer skives off school to go swimming with Huckleberry; in the second, Tom’s made to paint a fence as punishment; in the third he gets all soppy and lovesick over new classmate Becky Thatcher.

It sort of reminds me of an idea I had for a series of 24 where Jack Bauer finally gets a day off: for the first ten episodes, Jack just sleeps. In episode eleven, he goes to the loo. In episode twelve, he visits the off-license to buy some cigarettes and a carton of milk. The rest of the series would probably consist of Jack sitting in front of the television, occasionally getting up to grab another packet of Skips from the kitchen cupboard.

For all its lack of pace and drama, Huck Finn still makes for oddly compulsive viewing. Sammy Snider’s portrayal of Tom Sawyer is firmly in the Gentle Ben/Flipper school of child over-acting, but this somehow works alongside Ian Tracey’s more laid back performance as Huck. A special mention should also go to Blu Mankuma, who lends genuine pathos and dignity to his portrayal of runaway slave Jim.

Despite its best efforts, Huck Finn rarely covers its German/Canadian roots – the actors display a rather bewildering array of accents (none, apart from Jim, particularly southern), and there’s some dodgy lip-synching on several actors, Sawyer’s Aunt Polly in particular.

The DVD image quality is passable, and the occasionally scratchy, washed-out picture is understandable given the show’s age.

As well as all 26 episodes of the series, there’s also an illuminating half-hour documentary, featuring interviews with four of the main players, including Alex Diakun, who is surprisingly unapologetic about his toe-curlingly unconvincing performance as Injun Joe. Apparently, Michael J Fox was almost involved in the show too.

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Ultimately, Huck Finn’s humble production values and its languid pace probably won’t endear it to today’s generation of viewers raised on a diet of big-budget, special effects laden shows, but those who remember the Huck Finn from the eighties will probably enjoy revisiting it – the story is a timeless one, and the quality of the lead actors make this more than just another nostalgia-fest. If only I could forget that wretched theme tune again…

3 out of 5


3 out of 5