MGM // 1991 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // September 18th, 2001
Fred Tate dances to the beat of a different drummer.
In 1991, Jodie Foster was at the top of her career with the success of The Silence Of The Lambs. Winning numerous awards (including Best Picture and a Best Actress Oscar for Foster), The Silence Of The Lambs became a benchmark horror film and a great stepping stone for many involved in the film (including Oscar winning actor Anthony Hopkins, who would soon shoot to superstar status). For her next project, Jodie Foster decided to try her hand at a new skill: directing. Foster embarked on her first directing gig using Scott Frank's (Out Of Sight) intelligent screenplay about Fred Tate, a pint-sized child prodigy undergoing the trials and tribulations of being and eight years old genius. Aside of just directing, the film also starred Foster as Fred's grizzled mother, Dianne Wiest (Parenthood, Edward Scissorhands) as a demanding psychologist, jazz crooner Harry Connick, Jr. as Fred's new best buddy, and then newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd (Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later) as little Fred Tate. Little Man Tate makes its jazzy debut on DVD care of MGM Home Entertainment.
Button cute Fred Tate (Hann-Byrd) is a genetic wonder, possessing the IQ of an intellectual genius. Living with his mother Dede (Foster) in the heart of the city, Fred endures boring public school classes and the isolation associated with greatness. Dede is a bit abrasive, a slang talking woman who loves her son with all her heart. When noted psychologist Jane Grierson (Wiest) suddenly offers Fred the chance to show his smarts to the world, Dede is hesitant. After some persuasion, Dede allows Fred to enroll in Jane's school for gifted children and enter the "Odyssey of the Mind" competition for boy and girl geniuses. However, Fred begins to become even more isolated as he begins taking college course and prepares to be on national television.
Dede wants Fred to be happy. Jane wants Fred to show off his wondrous gift. And all Fred wants is to be a normal kid.
Little Man Tate won't move the earth. It's a sweet, gentle, and elegant picture that can easily be seen as quickie entertainment. There are no huge special effects, nor is the script that enormously original. However, Little Man Tate wins points (with this reviewer, at least) for being a very entertaining and often moving dramatic comedy about isolation and finding your place in the world. Every performance in Little Man Tate sparkles, especially that of Adam Hann-Byrd as the adorable Fred Tate.
If it sounds like I'm being overly sentimental, that may be because there are few movies like Little Man Tate. I really fell in love with this "little movie that could." Jodie Foster shows that she is just as adept at acting as she is with directing (further proof being Foster's 1995 comedy Home For The Holidays). The story of Little Man Tate is one that almost everyone can relate to: the heartbreak of loneliness. Fred Tate possesses gifts that far exceed most people's, though the only thing Fred really desires is to have a good friend and playmate in his life. In one form or another, who can't relate to that? At the heart of Little Man Tate is the power of unconditional acceptance by one's peers and family. Frank's script never tries too hard to get us to like the shy and reclusive Fred. Each scene slowly unfolds layers of Fred like an onion. At first we think he may be just a shy boy, but soon realize that he quietly wants to be like everyone else, but can't.
Most impressive in the movie is Adam Hann-Byrd as Fred. Foster was able to pull one of the most winning performances out of a child actor I've ever seen. A combination of intellect and vulnerability, Hann-Byrd was the perfect choice to play Fred Tate. Foster also does an extraordinary job as Dede, a jaded but loving mother who wants nothing but the best for her son. Dede knows that she can never match Fred's intelligence, and as such figures that the best she can do is just love and attempt to understand him. Dianne Wiest, one of the most under appreciated actresses working in film today, does a chameleon like turn into Jane Grierson, the obsessed psychologist who thinks that she can use Fred's intellectual gifts for her own career benefits. She knows how to write books about bright kids and do her job, but when it comes to getting down to the emotional core of a child, Jane is lost. The rest of the supporting cast, including Harry Connick, Jr., David Hyde-Pierce (TV's Fraser), and Debi Mazer, are all funny and touching in their small (but important) roles. One of the great joys of watching movies like Little Man Tate is seeing such a perfectly cast set of actors work their craft in such a magical way. And like the actors, Little Man Tate is a magical movie.
Little Man Tate is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Over ten years old, Little Man Tate retains a very nice look that has bright colors and very bold black levels. I was fairly impressed with how good this transfer looked. Though Little Man Tate showed a few minor imperfections (including some slight edge enhancement and a small amount of grain), overall it is a great looking print. Major kudos are in order for the people at MGM for this excellent looking transfer of Little Man Tate.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, as well as in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround in French and Spanish. Because this is mostly a dialogue driven film, the Dolby 5.1 mix is not as aggressive as some other 5.1 tracks. The surround features on all speakers kicked in during most musical sequences (featuring composer Mark Isham's snazzy jazz laden score), and in a few other minor spots. The track is nothing overly impressive, but it certainly does a nice job when needed. The Dolby 2.0 mix is expectantly inferior to the Dolby 5.1 track. Also included are Spanish and French subtitles.
Little Man Tate features at least one impressive supplement for fans of the film. Like Home For The Holidays, director/star Jodie Foster agreed to record a commentary track for Little Man Tate. Much like her commentary for Home For The Holidays, this track is very chatty and interesting for those looking to catch a glimpse into the production of Little Man Tate. It was funny to find out that Little Man Tate started out as a black comedy (with "a lot of deaths," and "closer in relation to Problem Child then the final version of Little Man Tate" as Foster points out), then turned into the delightful film it is today. This is a great track by Foster with minimal gaps and lots of juicy information.
Also included on the disc is an original theatrical trailer for Little Man Tate presented in anamorphic widescreen.
I will admit that during a few scenes Little Man Tate does start to tilt into overindulging sappiness. Smartly, Foster is able to keep a wrangle on these scenes, making sure the pace moves briskly by tempering the melodramatic moments with light comedy.
You should be able to find Little Man Tate for around $15-20 at most video/DVD stores. I can easily say that this edition is worth picking up for fans of either Jodie Foster or well-written "dramedy." Both the video and audio portions of this disc are very good, and the inclusion of a commentary track by the director makes this an above average disc. Though a few more extras certainly would have been welcome, this DVD stands tall and is well worth your money. Just watch out for the flying globes (see the movie and you'll know what I mean).
Little Man Tate is free to boogey the night away...
Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Audio Commentary with Director/Star Jodie Foster