“If you don’t know your past, you won’t have a future.”
The Education of Little Tree is based upon a novel of the same title that appeared in the mid-1970s written by Forrest Carter, a book publicized erroneously as autobiographical upon its initial appearance. Forrest Carter, as it turned out, was a pseudonym for Asa Carter, who had been an active Ku Klux Klan organizer and speech writer for George Wallace. Despite that, the book gathered much praise for its detailed and empathetic story of a young, part-Cherokee boy. In 1997, the book became the basis of a Canadian film production that involved location shooting in the American southeast. Paramount has now released the film on DVD in a version completely devoid of any supplementary content.
After the loss of his father and mother, and over the objections of his aunt, an eight-year-old boy of Cherokee descent is taken by his grandparents to live with them at their simple cabin in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. It is the 1930s and the little boy, named Little Tree, soon finds love and contentment living with Granpa who is white and Granma who is Cherokee, both of whom instill in him a love for the natural world around him. Little Tree also becomes good friends with a mysterious Cherokee named Willow John and later with a little girl whom he meets at the town nearest his grandparents’ cabin. Then, due to a complaint from Little Tree’s aunt that his grandparents are not properly schooling him, government officials intervene and Little Tree is forced to leave his grandparents and go to a distant school where he is to remain until he turns 18. Predictably, Little Tree does not fit in with his new surroundings and during a period of punishment, he finds himself wishing with all his heart for his Granpa to come and take him back home.
The Education of Little Tree is a pleasantly innocuous little film that also seems very much like something I’ve seen before. This film is familiar territory for anyone who’s seen episodes of The Waltons TV series or its later TV movies (it’s no surprise that one of the scriptwriters is that series’s narrator and later producer Earl Hamner Jr.), and numerous coming-of-age and depression-era films. The twist here is the angle about the Cherokee history of the Smoky Mountains area.
This is certainly a fine-looking film with some lovingly composed location shooting that is not identified specifically in the credits, although reference is made to Georgia-based location work. The story is easy to take, the period is atmospherically invoked, and the acting of all the principal characters is well-done. The film never really catches fire, however, due to a lack of well-developed plot conflicts. At one point, for example, Little Tree accidentally runs into a couple of revenue agents who are trying to track down his Granpa’s moonshine operation. Through the help of his dog, Little Tree manages to escape, but that’s the end of it. We never find out what happened to the agents and they never reappear in the film. Even the sequence at the school to which Little Tree is sent seems flat. Little Tree manages to escape with ease when his Granpa comes to help him, and once again there’s no apparent retribution as a result. One might say that the film avoids the clichés that so many familiar plot turns could turn into, and that’s true, but in so doing, the film also avoids building the sort of dramatic tension and resolution that could have made it something special.
If, however, you can accept the story as it is, the film’s success can then be measured by the four lead players, all of whom provide naturalistic and quietly effective performances. Granpa is played gently and lovingly by James Cromwell who seems to pop up everywhere these days since his success in Babe (1995). One of the film’s nice touches is the simple fact that granpa is a sympathetic figure from the start rather than the stereotypical curmudgeonly type who is only gradually won over à la Heidi. Granma and Willow John are played by Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene respectively. Both are native Canadian actors — Greene from Six Nations, Ontario, and Cardinal from Fort McMurray, Alberta — and both add class and dignity to the film. Finally, Little Tree is played by Joseph Ashton — a young American actor who was 11 at the time of filming. Ashton is one of the more appealing child actors and he provides the right mix of resourcefulness, innocence, and inquisitiveness for the role.
Paramount gives us its usual high-calibre image transfer, anamorphically enhanced and presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I wouldn’t rate it as among Paramount’s best, but it’s quite nice none-the-less. There is some evidence of speckling and some grain, but otherwise the outdoor photography is nicely rendered. Colour is perhaps slightly muted compared to the brightest colour transfers, but overall, it’s clear and true-to-life. Edge enhancement is not an issue.
We get three Dolby Digital sound tracks. There are two English ones — 5.1 and 2.0 surround — and a French 2.0 surround. There’s not a great deal to choose between the two English tracks. Surround activity is quite muted and there’s little engagement of the lower frequencies. Of course, the film is not a special-effects-laden epic, and depending on dialogue, subtle outdoor sounds, and a pleasant musical score as the film does, both tracks deliver the film’s audio in a fully satisfactory manner. English subtitles are provided.
As for supplementary content, Paramount gives us absolutely nothing. Of course, if you look at the disc’s back cover, there’s a box which lists “special features.” When is Paramount going to catch on that English subtitles, scene selection, interactive menus, widescreen version, et cetera are not special features, but merely standard expectations of any disc that purports to contain a proper presentation of a film? Mind you, Paramount is not alone in this practice. It’s just that by not including any real supplementary material, it’s drawing attention to the silliness of what its “special features” box on its packaging actually lists.
The Education of Little Tree is one of those films that we often hear people asking for — a family film that promotes family values and that can be viewed with pleasure by all. Do families really support such films where it counts though — at the box office? The returns for The Education of Little Tree were pretty paltry, so it seems not. That’s a shame in this case, for despite a dramatically weak story, there is much in the film to give pleasure to all age levels. Paramount’s DVD presentation is faithfully accurate and allows the film’s cinematography and pleasant though low-key music to shine. Unfortunately, Paramount provides no insight into the film’s production or historical background due to a lack of any supplementary material whatsoever.
The defendant is released on its own recognizance, but Paramount is urged to educate itself on the merits of more thorough attention to assembling supplementary material. Court is adjourned.