Movie: The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

I am not a fan of jukebox musicals.  You know, those films like Mama Mia or Across the Universe, where a plot is constructed around songs by a single artist of a certain genre but which are otherwise unrelated.  1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain is not such a film (it doesn’t have any musical numbers, period), but it left me feeling like I had just watched one.

This Claymation feature takes interpretations of various stories by Twain and wraps them in a storyline where the author flies a steam-powered airship of his own design on a journey to intercept Halley’s Comet.  The inspiration for this is the real-life association between Twain and the comet.  It made one of its 75-year appearances on the year of his birth and, as the author uncannily quipped, God must have observed that “they came in together, they must go out together.”  Indeed, the writer died in 1910, one of the years of Halley’s passing.

There are three stowaways on his ship, and these are three of his creations: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher.  I greatly respect Twain as one of the finest wits America produced, but I haven’t gone out of my way to read his works.  A long time ago, I read either The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but I honest couldn’t tell you which one it was.  I know this will be considered blasphemy by many, but the book just didn’t leave much of an impression on me.

Basically, Tom is the most impulsive of the three, Huck is his more level-headed friend who is inevitably lured into Tom’s schemes, and Becky is the most cautious and the voice of reason.  Though Becky is the smartest of the three, she is more often than not a bit of a killjoy. 

This balance between the (admittedly, stereotypes of) genders is reflected in the longest story here.  Based on Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve”, we have Adam as a careless doofus who does things like ride various objects over a high waterfall.  He is essentially a Claymation version of Tim Allen’s character from Home Improvement.  Eve is introduced as a riff on Jane Goodall, making scientific observations of Adam’s buffoonery. 

One of the most impressive moments in the feature happens in this segment, and that is the creation of the land and sea.  This is ideally suited for Claymation, as grass grows and rocks appear atop of a background of only stars and black space.  Water flows to fill gaps where rivers are meant to be.  It is truly jaw-dropping.

This is where the heart of the movie lies, and it seems to be aware of that.  I suspect the filmmaker would have been content to leave this as a standalone short, though the market for such a film would be very limited.  And yet there isn’t enough potential for the Adam and Eve story to be expanded to feature length, so we have trappings of what I felt was lesser content around it.

Probably my second most favorite moment is courtesy of strangely dark scene courtesy of a combination elevator and transportation device in the ship which seems to randomly stop at “The Mysterious Stranger”.  It is there Twain’s wards meet a headless, cloaked figure that holds a harlequin mask that serves as its disembodied face.  There’s this disturbing conversation with the stranger: “Who are you?”  “An angel.”  “What’s your name?”  “Satan.” 

So, Twain sends the kids through the door to go hang with Beelzebub.  It gives them fruit they go crazy for (just imagine: kids that love to eat real fruit) and invites them to make some people.  The resulting sequence of crude clay figures goes from cute to disturbing very fast as the stranger kills them indiscriminately.  As it explains, “I can do no wrong, for I do not know what it is”.  It also has this heart-warming sentiment to convey: “People are of no value.  We could make more sometime if we need them.”

I like how the movie isn’t afraid to go a bit dark in something that would normally be dismissed as children’s entertainment.  That said, this shouldn’t be unexpected for those familiar with the work of Will Vinton, and this is his baby.  I will admit I am a bigger fan of the work from Aardman Studios, but Vinton always had a slight edginess that distinguishes his oeuvre. 

For example, one of the themes explored here is how Twain was, superficially, two seemingly disparate personalities: he could be alternately highly optimistic or deeply cynical.  Those two halves are represented by what is revealed at the end to be two different Twains which are then reconciled into one being.  I thought it was interesting how what appears to be a children’s film (a ghetto of cinema, if there is one) would explore the idea of each person containing different personalities, and how it is up to each of us to decide how to reconcile that.

One character I haven’t mentioned yet is the airship.  As I’m not into steampunk, it was a hair too antiquated-cute for my tastes.  It is not unlike the yellow submarine from The Beatles’s film in that it always seems to have a different new mechanism on it to handle any situation that arises.  These tools also flaunt their extreme unlikeliness, such as a convenient hand and arm that can perform such tasks as mending the ship’s balloon.  Even the ship’s figurehead has an unexpected benefit when it suddenly has a sword it can weild to deflect asteroids.

I really hate to say anything negative about The Adventures of Mark Twain.  It is obviously a labor of love from somebody who had enormous talent.  Alas, as much as there is visual wonder and expert craftsmanship to observe here, I never fully lost myself in the experience.  I especially failed to overcome frustration I felt regarding the jumping narratives and the attempt to build a cohesive world out of unrelated stories by the author.  And yet I can understand why Vinton put so much effort into this.  As the protagonist of one Twain story learns here: “A man’s got to be in his own heaven to be happy.”

Dir: Will Vinton

Starring James Whitmore, Michele Mariana, Gary Krug, Chris Ritchie

Watched on Kanopy