A worthy `Sounder'

An American classic, done right

Television Preview

January 18, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

About once every year, The Wonderful World of Disney actually does make a truly wonderful film for young viewers. Remember Cinderella with an African-American actress, Brandy, in the lead? Or, Disney's made-for-TV version of Annie?

Tomorrow night, in connection with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Disney offers this year's gem, Sounder, a mythic coming-of-age story of an African-American boy in the Depression-era South. There's a bonus for local viewers: The lead role of Boy is played by Columbia's Daniel Lee Robertson III, who delivers a moving, muscular and resonant performance.

You might remember a celebrated feature film of the same title made 30 years ago starring Kevin Hooks in the lead role, with Paul Winfield as his father. Hooks, who has become a top television director, returns to direct this Sounder, with Winfield this time in the role of Teacher, an educator who leads the young hero along a path of learning as he navigates the difficult passage to manhood. Carl Lumbly plays Father with an intensity and passion worthy of the performance on the big screen three decades ago that earned Winfield an Oscar nomination.

Disney's Sounder is so good that it puts me in mind of my favorite all-time made-for-TV movie, CBS' 1969 version of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory with Capote himself doing the voiceover. Disney's Sounder isn't as exquisitely wrought as that melancholy classic of adolescent memory, but it travels the same hard road of growing up oppressed in the rural South of 1930s America - and this time it's told from an African-American point of view.

There is nothing fancy about the Sounder story itself as first told in book form by William H. Armstrong. It centers on a closely knit family of African-American sharecroppers - a father, mother, three children and a puppy named Sounder.

When I first heard about the remake, I shuddered. I feared Disney was going to give Martin Luther King Jr. the Hallmark treatment, turning his distinguished memory into the equivalent of a mass-produced, cheaply sentimental, holiday greeting card by means of a sappy movie about a poor-but-loving family, a boy and his sad-eyed dog.

The dog does, indeed, have sad eyes, and the family is dirt poor, but easy sentimentality is almost always ditched in favor of mythic resonance here. And myth isn't always pretty, as those fabulous, bloody Greek sagas with people getting their eyes plucked out and dead bodies dragged around Troy serve to remind.

Father steals a ham to provide for his family and is taken off to prison, which sets in motion the quest at the center of this film. A warning to parents of young children: As Father is taken away in chains, Sounder races after the wagon, and one of the guards shoots the dog, wounding it severely.

It's graphic enough that 8-year-old Billy is probably going to dive off the sofa and throw his arms around old Farfo snoozing on the living room floor - if Billy hasn't already dissolved into a puddle of tears. But, as someone who hates even make-believe depictions of animals being hurt, I have to say the scene is handled as well as I can imagine it being handled.

Once Boy temporarily loses his companion and leaves home on a lonely search for Father, we are out on the classic Hero Quest, the scary journey of passage that informs the core narrative of every culture in every civilization in every era in the history of Planet Earth.

I love the messages this film offers about education and the way in which writing the story of Sounder so empowers the hero that you can't help but think of him as Man rather than Boy.

My one complaint involves a bit of sentimental, make-believe goo that seems stuck onto the film at the very end. It takes place when the grown-up Boy looks under the floorboards one last time at the place where Sounder used to sleep.

But, hey, if it gets little Billy to stop crying, I can live with it in this otherwise exceptional film.

Sounder

When: Tomorrow night at 7

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: A rich and sensitive rendering of a classic coming-of-age tale.

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