Apr 16, 2014

Review: Our Friend, Martin (1999)

Our Friend, Martin is about a group of kids who time travel back to watch Martin Luther King Jr. evolve into his leadership role in the American civil rights movement. Robert Ri'chard voices the main character Miles. He's an African-American boy in sixth grade who's on the verge of having to be kept back a year. What's Miles gotta do? Ace a project on Martin Luther King Jr. 

There is a stacked cast in Our Friend, Martin from Whoopi Goldberg to John Travolta. It's all for a good cause though because this is first and foremost an educational movie for younger people. Money is not part of the equation here. All the same I got some opening credit shock seeing all these big players in one movie. The most amusing of all is Samuel L. Jackson's role which isn't really supposed to be funny because it comes at what is supposed to be a tense and serious moment.
Our Friend, Martin starts off boldly in a nonlinear narrative format. Well, just for the first scene though. Everything afterwards is chronological but I'm sure it got many kids across North American schools to pay attention right off the bat.

Miles has got to ace his Martin Luther King Jr. project and lucky for him, his school (Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School) is located in Atlanta where MLKJ's home has become a national museum. While on a tour, Miles and his best friend Randy can't help but get a closer look at King Jr.'s room. They somehow get transported back into the past in part due to a kindly devious tour guide, voiced by Whoopi Goldberg of course.  

The scenes of the past with Martin Luther King Jr. are also mixed in with actual footage from real events of the civil rights movement and also feature some of King Jr.'s speeches. He's a master of speech and it's hard not to get caught up in what he's talking about. The footage is partly muted of any real violence because this is meant to be for kids so the real brutality never really gets shown. This is understandable though because I'm sure that the makers of this movie don't want parents calling up the schools and complaining over a MLKJ movie. 

The animation is pretty dated and doesn't hold up to animated feature films of the time but that's not really surprising for a direct to video release. The voice acting despite all the talent also suffers due to its disjointed nature with the accompanying animation. The voice actor chosen for Martin Luther King Jr. in his 30's is actually one of his real life sons but he doesn't really do a good job. When you have speech excerpts of MLKJ's speeches right alongside, he can't really be faulted. 

Our Friend, Martin kind of feels like it could be a Saturday morning movie special if it didn't have Martin Luther King Jr. as the centerpiece. It's a tool that's meant to be shown in grade school classrooms and it does a decent job despite its neutered subject matter. It's got a crazy voice cast and it features an oftentimes shirtless bully who cracks me up. 


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