DIRECTED BY: Will Vinton
FEATURING: James Whitmore (voice)
PLOT: The acclaimed author, with three of his most famous characters in tow, recounts a few of his famous tales while racing in a fantastical airship to meet up with Halley’s Comet.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The unique properties of the Claymation stop-motion technique give Mark Twain a distinctive look and feel, and in key moments, the film manages to capture the subject’s complex inner voice better than almost any adaptation of his work. But the attempt to graft an exploration of the many facets of the personality of Samuel Clemens onto what is clearly meant to be a delightful children’s entertainment results in a metaphysical mishmash that’s more messy than it is mindbending. There’s not really anything like The Adventures of Mark Twain, which actually makes it harder to peg for the purposes of this project; the pendulum swings mightily between bafflement at what they were trying to do and amazement at what they did.
COMMENTS: Several years ago, a video started making the rounds across the interwebs. It bore the title, “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV,” and featured a strange headless creature with a mask instead of a face who makes a small village of tiny, happy, featureless people for the amusement of three children, and then proceeds to destroy said village in a flourish of calamity and misery.
Of course, the cartoon was not “banned from TV”, and even without attribution, a keen eye would recognize the unique plasticine style as that of animation pioneer Will Vinton. Best-known for his commercial work (most prominently the California Raisins), Vinton gained notoriety for an aggressively detailed approach to stop-motion animation. In contrast to, say, the Aardman house style, which is consistently smooth and a little stodgy, Vinton got deep into the craggy details, carving every deep wrinkle and wild strand of hair in thick, fingerprint-impressed clay. In addition to advertisements, Vinton’s work landed him sequences in TV shows and movies, music videos, and a series of holiday specials, to say nothing of an Oscar and three more nominations for his short film work. Mark Twain was his only feature-length project, and a curious one it turns out to be.
From the get-go, this is a perplexing tale being told. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—all Twain creations—spot the famous author planning to fly a giant dirigible to the stars in pursuit of Halley’s Comet. (As the film’s epigram reminds us, Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, contemporaneously to one of the comet’s periodic appearances, and the author frequently referenced his expectation that he would “go out” with the comet upon its return.) They have no notion of being characters from Twain’s mind, and he only obliquely references their roles as characters in his novels. Once they are ensconced as part of the crew, he introduces them to some of his other stories.
Mark Twain, then, becomes a strange blend of steampunk adventure and anthology film. The framing story suffers from a dangerous lack of stakes, as it’s hard to become too worried about the fate of three characters who are canonically fictional and a fourth who we know did not die in a crazy zeppelin accident. Furthermore, Tom Sawyer is here such a bull-headed dimwit as to put viewers off ever reading the novel in which he stars. As for the story segments—which include “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” and “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”—they are faithful, but bland. Vinton’s animation is outstanding; rivers rush with gusto, facial expressions are expertly crafted (Becky’s side-eye is especially piercing), and scenes and backdrops transition in a spectacular fashion not seen until the advent of CGI morphing. However, technique is sunk by execution. Unimaginative writing, flat acting, and dreadful pacing leach the humor right out of Twain’s originals.
And then comes the movie’s showstopper. Even if it didn’t stand out in such sharp relief to its surroundings, “The Mysterious Stranger” would earn its reputation as a crème-de-la-weird cinematic moment. Exemplifying Twain’s late-life nihilism, this excerpt from his notorious unfinished novel portrays a disconnected angel named Satan as he impassively watches the strange rituals and miseries of humankind. It is horrifying, and intentionally so, as Twain excoriates in equal parts the vengeful God that would visit such cruelty upon his own creation and the people who would love him in spite of it. While the other anthology segments recreate Twain’s stories, only here does Vinton access the author’s soul.
Mark Twain aims to be unique, which it is, but also enchanting, which it is not. The patchwork nature of the story, the puzzling framing device, and the jumbled mix of rhythms and tones denote a movie with an identity crisis. Perhaps that’s fitting, though. Mark Twain wasn’t just the old-timey grandfatherly quipster we revere today. He was complicated, mischievous, equal parts success and failure, frequently depressed, sometimes bitterly angry. There is no one Mark Twain, so it makes sense that there isn’t one consistent Adventures of Mark Twain.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
OTHER LINK OF INTEREST:
How the Father of Claymation Lost His Company – The story of the fall of Vinton Studios and Will Vinton’s animation career is messy and heartbreaking, involves a failed rapper calling himself “Chilly Tee” who happens to be the son of Nike mogul Phil Knight, and serves as prelude to the current success of the Laika house of animation. It’s a sad story, and a thoroughly worthwhile read.