It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The Education of Little Tree” is another fine family movie that will no doubt be ignored by the fine families of America. The notion that there is a hungry audience for good family entertainment, nurtured by such dreamers as the critic Michael Medved, is a touching mirage. American families made it a point to avoid “The Secret Garden,” “The Little Princess,” “Shiloh” and even “Rocket Man,” and I fear they'll also shield their offspring from “The Education of Little Tree.” Too bad. If children still exist whose imaginations have not been hammered into pulp by R-rated mayhem such as “Starship Troopers,” this film will play as a magical experience.
The film tells the story of a half-Cherokee orphan who eludes the clutches of his prim white aunt and is reared in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains by his grandparents. Granma (Tantoo Cardinal) is Cherokee; Granpa (James Cromwell) was “born white, but learned to see through Cherokee eyes.” In a series of vignettes that adds up to life's lessons, they teach Little Tree (Joseph Ashton) his school lessons, the poetry of nature and a lot of common sense.
The film, set in the 1930s, of course sentimentalizes the wisdom of Native Americans--who, after decades in which they could do no right in the movies, now can do no wrong. Even Granpa's occupation--distilling and selling moonshine--is seen as a sort of public service for the local population, who don't have the money for store-bought booze. But for Little Tree, life in his grandparents' small cabin is an idyll: He learns of nature, of the seasons, of dogs and frogs and the mysteries of life and death. More insights are provided by an Indian neighbor, played by Graham Greene.
The movie has its share of suspense and action, especially when revenuers come tramping through the woods looking for the still (the loyal dog Blue Boy holds them at bay while the boy crashes through the undergrowth rescuing a sack of Granpa's equipment). And when the grandparents lose custody of the boy because of the moonshine business, there is a sequence set in a place called the Notched Gap Indian School, which is less a school than a reformatory, trying to cure its students of the notion that they are Indians. Little Tree looks through a window at the star that Granma told him to keep in sight, and knows that it looks down on her, too. Granpa takes more direct action.