Director: Will Vinton
Screenplay: Susan Shadburne with much of the dialogue taken from the works of Mark Twain
Based on the works of: Mark Twain
Starring: James Whitmore, Michele Mariana, Gary Krug, Chris Ritchie
Producer: Will Vinton
Running Time: 86 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I'm baffled as to why I'd never heard of The Adventures of Mark Twain before being sent this screener. Granted, it was a huge box office disaster and was released when I was only four years old, but it would have been doing the rounds on video when I was a kid and I was a great lover of animated films and TV (and still am), including the California Raisins, which was produced by the same team. I even read Tom Sawyer as a youngster, but somehow this totally passed me by. The film was the one and only feature to be produced entirely using director/producer Will Vinton's patented claymation technique, using plasticine clay to produce every element. Quite how this differs from films like the Wallace and Gromit series I'm not sure, but according to Vinton (in the DVD extras) it is one of a kind and a process not likely to be repeated.
The Adventures of Mark Twain at it's core is a compendium of animated interpretations of some of the works of Mark Twain. To tie them all together is a new fictionalised story concerning Mark Twain's journey to reach Halley's comet. In reality the author was born during one of it's appearances on November 30th 1835 and, predicting he would “go out with it”, he died the day after it's return on April 10th 1910. The Adventures of Mark Twain plays with this idea, charting his journey to literally meet the comet and thus his maker. Putting a spanner in the works however is the appearance of stowaways Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher (pretty 'meta' for the 80's). Despite their uncertainty in the journey's purpose and Twain's shifts in mood, the group carry on together. Along the way they hear stories from the man himself as well as get chances to experience them first-hand through the 'Index-a-vator' – a device that brings up a doorway into whichever Twain story you wish.
Despite the friendly-looking cover art and the quaint, charming first half of the film, this is not for kids. There are elements that I'm sure children would enjoy, but this is quite a strange, occasionally very dark and deep film that pays homage to the whole gamut of Twain's work which, especially in his later years, could be quite bitter and cynical towards issues as touchy as organised religion. Those who would get most out of this film would be people particularly knowledgeable about his life and writing, which I certainly am not. It didn't stop me appreciating the experience though and it certainly makes me want to track down more of Twain's less familiar novels and short stories. It's clear why the film bombed so badly on release though. It is not an easy film to pin down and it's audience was always going to be quite niche. What's quite amusing is that now, a particular scene in the film has become an internet phenomenon and currently stands at over 11 million views, probably a hell of a lot more than the film itself. The scene I'm referring to is the infamous 'Mysterious Stranger' segment. This disturbing scene is thought to be the main reason the film got banned from certain television networks, where an 'angel' with no face (just a constantly morphing stage mask) introduces themselves as Satan and takes the children through his cold views on the human race. You can view the scene below to help you get a feel for how unusual the tone of the film can be.
As you can also gather from that clip though, the film on a technical level is most impressive. Most of the design work and animation is exemplary considering the restraints of the budget, time period and the process itself. Scenes such as a brief musical interlude with Twain sat at his player-organ and a dramatic storm sequence make great use of the claymation medium, using some imaginative designs, moody lighting and interesting clay-painted backgrounds. The 'Diaries of Adam and Eve' segment (which makes up much of the film) is delightful too with it's abstractly colourful Garden of Eden, helping complement the warmly humorous subject matter.
However, as praiseworthy as much of the film is, it still didn't fully work for me. The shifting tone jarred quite a bit, with some of the more hokey and dated elements standing out against it's darker and deeper corners. The 3 children don't help – they're quite annoying throughout and the performances grate against the solid voice work of James Whitmore as Mark Twain. Of course the 'gee-whiz', quaint nature of the characters is largely down to the source material, but they did get on my nerves and prevented the film from becoming the truly adult piece that it maybe should have been (and was intended, as Vinton points out in his commentary).
It was an ambitious project and there is a lot to take from the film, from it's technical quality to it's interesting musings on life and relationships, but it doesn't make for a fully satisfying whole I'm afraid. It's definitely worth tracking down though and the DVD/Blu-Ray itself is an impressive package, so I'd advise you make up your own mind.
The Adventures of Mark Twain is released on DVD & Blu-Ray by Eureka Entertainment on 31st October. I was sent the DVD version and the picture and sound quality is great for a film that has become largely ignored over the years. There's a surprisingly large amount of supplemental material too with a making of featurette (looking at the general making of Claymation, not just Twain), a look at the history of Claymation, a featurette on the music, an hour's worth of interviews with those involved and a commentary from director Vinton. The features are all very interesting and lovingly made. The commentary in particular is worth a listen. Vinton is clearly proud of his achievement and doesn't sound too bitter about the film's box-office failure, although he does bring up the subject at the end and encourages the viewers to spread the word if they liked the film.