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I've read a lot of books, and I haven't liked a lot of them. However, there are really only two books I hate. One of those is John Knowles' A Separate Peace. (A whole book devoted to a character who pushes his best friend out of a tree? Fuck you, sir.) The other book is Johnny Tremain.

123. (870.) Johnny Tremain (1957)

When I read it for school back in 1980-something, I wish I had known I could have taken a shortcut with this movie. (Though there are significant departures between book and screen.) I discovered it by accident on TCM the other day and watched it because I wondered how it would compare. Not surprisingly, it's better. But then, it would have to be.

The book version of Johnny Tremain is a self-pitying, whiny little cripple. The movie version is much shallower, preferring to spend his time mugging for the camera. His malady is treated as a quickly-resolved plot device. This glib tripe would be annoying in a real film, but it works fine in this after-school special intended for Disney's family-friendly television show.

What really works here isn't the character or plot or primer of American Revolutionary history but the matte paintings that flesh out 18th century Boston. The ship's masts and historical settings are spectacular. Say what you will about CGI, but you really don't need Maya or AfterEffects when you have Walt Disney's gifted painters. (The blog credits the paintings to Peter Ellenshaw, Albert Whitlock, and Jim Fetherolf.)

Can I recommend Johnny Tremain the movie? No. But I don't hate it, either. That's powerful proof of the patented Disney magic at work.

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To be continued...


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