Charles Winecoff
December 03, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

Long before Beavis and Butt-head became the cultural arbiters for teenage boys, Mark Twain’s rebellious Huckleberry Finn was lying, stealing, and cross- dressing his way down the Mississippi to escape an abusive father, help a slave find freedom, and generally thumb his nose at America’s hypocritical society. He had more than bad metal bands to worry about. Judging by his success over the 109 years since the first publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck seems likely to be with us long after that pair of pimply-faced chortlers have gone the way of Pee-wee Herman. Strangely, though, the movies haven’t helped his reputation much: His latest incarnation, in The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993, Disney, PG, $96.95), notwithstanding, Huck hasn’t fared well, despite being portrayed in no fewer than 11 other versions (four of which are of particular interest). In Richard Thorpe’s black-and-white Depression-era the adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939, MGM/UA, unrated, $24.95), fresh-faced, street-smart Mickey Rooney and moon-faced, day-dreaming Rex Ingram play Huck and slave Jim as devoted losers. Rooney, giving a performance of disarming poignancy, smokes and calls the wily shots, while Ingram, docile and appealing, smiles and sings-when he’s not trying to tell Huck, in his gentle way, how much he needs freedom. It’s bleak, but sure not to threaten the ruling class. By contrast, MGM’s lavish color remake 21 years later, the adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960, MGM/UA, unrated, $19.98), perpetuates the saccharine fantasy of ’50s life. Redheaded Eddie Hodges (of Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head) does take a token smoke as Huck, but his relentless perkiness and Shirley Temple line readings make for a kiddies-only characterization. Boxer Archie Moore is equally stiff in his film debut as a dull-witted Jim. Shticky acting all around conveniently keeps questions, ethical and otherwise, out of the picture. Post-Vietnam Hollywood wasn’t sure whom it was trying to please with the musical Huckleberry Finn (1974, FoxVideo, unrated, $19.98), featuring songs, lyrics, and script by Mary Poppins’ Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman. No sooner does Roberta Flack finish singing the somber ”Freedom” over the opening credits, than we get brassy Ice Capades-style arrangements of parodic semi- songs that are the Sherman brothers’ post-Poppins trademark. Bland Jeff East is Huck, his hair fussily teased to look wild and free. Paul Winfield plays Jim with such anachronistic coolness that he never really seems in danger. The following year, ABC brought Huckleberry Finn (1975, FoxVideo, unrated, $14.98) to the small screen in a drab and humorless film that’s forgettable in every respect but one-the exceptional miscasting of fully grown, 21-year-old Ron Howard as a smug, in- expresssive Huck. This version bends so far over to be reverent, it falls flat on its face. Disney’s new Huck Finn, conscientious but buoyant, is ideal for the ’90s. The careful details clarify vague issues from earlier films (Huck’s financial situation, the moral dilemmas of Jim and Huck’s relationship) and manages to retain some of Twain’s not-so-subtle social satire (e.g., the explosive savagery lying just beneath those frilly Southern bonnets). Jim finally gets his due in Courtney B. Vance’s lively, intelligent portrayal, though Elijah Wood is too young and cute to really pull Huck off. Too bad Rooney wasn’t 54 years younger. 1993 version: A- 1939: B 1960: C 1974: D+ 1975: F -Charles Winecoff

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