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Paramount Studios presents
The Education of Little Tree (1996)

"If you don't know your past, you won't have a future."
- Willow John (Graham Greene)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: August 14, 2002

Stars: James Crowell, Tantoo Cardinal, Joseph Ashton, Graham Greene
Director: Richard Friedenberg

MPAA Rating: PG for language and thematic elements including old-fashioned discipline
Run Time: 01h:54m:39s
Release Date: March 12, 2002
UPC: 097363361442
Genre: family


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BB+A- D-

DVD Review

Grandpa: How do them moccasins feel?
Little Tree: Like they growed on my feet.

With the signing of the Echota treaty in 1835, the Cherokee nation faced one of its darkest hours, as the U.S. Senate began the process of relocating all Native American inhabitants of the Eastern states west of the Mississippi. First corralled into concentration camps by the Federal army and local militia, then forced to leave their homes, the journey—known as the Trail of Tears—left an estimated 4000 Cherokee dead. That was nearly one fifth of the population. Approximately 1000 escaped the roundup, returning to their ancestral homes in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Based on the best-selling novel by Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree recounts the experiences of an eight-year-old orphan, a descendent of these tribes, growing up in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression. To the dismay of his white aunt, who objects to their backwoods lifestyle, the boy is adopted by his Cherokee grandmother and half-Cherokee grandfather, a bootlegger. Richard Friedenberg (The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams) who also wrote the screenplay, directs this adaptation, starring James Cromwell (Babe, The Green Mile), Tantoo Cardinal (North of 60) and Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves).

Little Tree's (Joseph Ashton) education takes place in the forests, where he learns the Cherokee Way from his grandparents, and is taught the history of his people by Willow John (Greene), a mysterious figure who tells the story of the Trail of Tears. He becomes attuned to nature, helping his grandfather outwit the feds who come to raid the stills, and learns of the prejudice the Native American faces. His lessons take many forms, but his greatest challenge lies ahead, when at his aunt's insistence, the government intervenes to take the boy from his guardians and send Little Tree to the residential school, where he will spend the next ten years. Ordered to forget his Cherokee name and language, he faces a future segregated from both sides of his heritage.

When first published in 1971, the novel was marketed as an autobiography, but after the author's death in 1979, it was discovered this was far from the truth. In fact, Asa Carter (the author's real name), who also wrote The Outlaw Josey Wales, had been a leader in the KKK in the 1950s and '60s, and also the ghost writer for Alabama's Governor George Wallace, penning some of his most racist speeches. As a result of these findings, the book was reclassified as fiction 25 years after its initial release.

The film provides an entertaining story, full of emotional ups and downs, and is well played by its cast. Joseph Ashton evokes the wide-eyed innocence of a boy discovering his past and the world around him, in both the good and bad. Anatas Michos provides majestic cinematography of the natural wilderness, though I did find much of the opening interior sequences basking in shadow for too long.

With the plight of the American Indian as a worthy centerpiece, at times the story plays a little heavy-handed on the racist elements, while romanticizing the native way of life in a stereotypically mystical and new-agey sort of way, and credibility is stretched on many occasions to better serve the emotional needs of the plot. That said, the film is still very enjoyable and full of adventure, illuminating some of the conditions that Native Americans faced in the early twentieth century, even when setting aside historical accuracy for melodramatic impact.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Image quality is reasonable, but somewhat soft, and some of the opening scenes are intentionally very dark. There is a moderate amount of grain, which is usually rendered well. Some horrid macroblocking artifacts appear in a couple of night sky sequences, but the rest looks okay, aside from a bit of aliasing here and there.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: English audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo surround. As expected, the 5.1 track is more enveloping, with better separation, and a more ambient feel, but the differences are subtle. Dialogue is clean for the most part, but was difficult to discern in a few places. A French 2.0 track is also available, which is of comparable quality, though voices do seem a bit on the thin side.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: There are no additional features.

Extras Grade: D-

 

Final Comments

The Education of Little Tree is a well-crafted film presenting the adventures of a young halfbreed as he comes to terms with his heritage and the world around him. The acting is good, the cinematography breathtaking, and the score well suited to the feel. Despite its racial stereotyping and historical inaccuracies, it entertains with a youthful perspective and innocence, as a fine fictional account of a bygone era.

 


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