A clip from The Adventures of Mark Twain.
Every so often, a film comes along that actually manages to pleasantly surprise the viewer by dashing all expectations. Because of the media savvy of most citizens in the West, growing up, as we have, with a constant glut of cinematic cliches, it is often easy to accurately assume what a film is going to be like. If we are told, for example, that it is a children's film, then we will often rightly figure on something happy and trite and sugary in its sweetness, and just about as filling as candy. If we can see that it is done in a medium such as Claymation, we may jump to that assumption right away. Now and then, however, we may find our assumption to be altogether mistaken. Indeed, we may find what is ostensibly considered a children's movie that shocks us, not from any snide cynicism or brutality that has come to pass for kids' entertainment, but rather by its profound intelligence and sensitivity.
Such is the case with the Claymation animated feature The Adventures of Mark Twain. This film is a high water mark across many genres, being an exemplary expression of children's' films, the works of America's most celebrated author and Wil Vinton's patented animation style (made famous by a group of singing dehydrated fruits). As the film opens, we are told the enduring legend of Twain's connection to Halley's Comet. The comet, which cycles every 75 years, came in 1835, the years of Samuel Clemens' birth. Reckoning that his fate was tied to that of the comet, he accurately predicted the natural close of his own life in 1910, when it returned. It is worth noting that The Adventures of Mark Twain was released in 1986, the last year that Halley's Comet came near Earth.
With the stage set, we are introduced to a curious world in which Twain and his literary creations live side-by-side. In order to meet his destiny, Twain has borrowed from Tom Sawyer Abroad a wondrous cross between a zeppelin and a paddlewheel riverboat, and it is onto this craft that Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher stow away. Much to their surprise, Twain doesn't seem especially angry, and in fact, even seems to know their names. While on board and on their globespanning tour to meet the famous celestial body (stopping by such sights as Big Ben and the Sphinx along the way), the youngsters are treated to some of Twain's greatest stories, both from the mouth of the American bard and from the ship's "index-o-vator" elevator which takes them to living tale to living tale.
The real story, however, is the mind of the great writer, and its grappling with the great questions of life, love, the afterlife, death and the dark side of humanity. This is quite heavy material, but the style and substance of the film treat it so well that one barely notices, and rather finds themselves deeply moved by the experience. The stories chosen for the film are uniquely suited to it. The only expected one is The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County, which is told at the very beginning. This is followed by a series of more profound intervals, including the touching Diary of Adam and Eve, about the development of the love affair between humanity's first couple. Meeting Twain's dark alter ego ("Every man is a moon..."), Tom, Huck and Becky are taken via index-o-vator to the darkest and loneliest thoughts of his notebook and to perhaps one of the most unnerving cinematic portrayal of Satan in The Mysterious Stranger. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are alluded to several times (including a crazed psychotic Injun Joe), but the film passes on the more famous works like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Meanwhile, Twain also tells the story of Captain Stormfield's strange trip to Heaven and gets ample opportunity to share his best maxims.
The Adventures of Mark Twain are also a brilliant showcase for the Claymation technique. It is easy to think of Claymation as a simple-minded stop-motion relic of the 1980's, the domain of California Raisins selling one product or another. This film shows how beautifully the plasticine models can move, with a fluidity unmatched even by the best examples of stop-motion. The characters have both an amazing detail yet a clean-lined simplicity to them, which makes them exceptional for expressing emotions. These models almost seem alive. It demonstrates the versatility of the medium, as the backgrounds of billowing clouds and celestial storms are also painted out of the clay. The ship itself is a delightful caricature of fantasy steam technology, utterly impossible even to minds stretched out by the Nautilus or the Tarantula.
This film demonstrates what can be done with both children's films and with this genre of retro-Victorian Science Fiction. Neither has to be trite and empty visual candy, but neither does it have to sacrifice aesthetic merit for the sake of intellectual and emotional appeal. It also shows that a story needn't be filled with sex and violence, those twin banes and blessings of the entertainment industry, in order to be serious. In some ways, there is almost an expectation that, to take anything Victorian seriously, it must be "ironic" and explore the Victorians' near fathomless appetite for the perverse. The Adventures of Mark Twain manages to excite the viewer with dramatic scenes without requiring violence. In terms of romance, it appeals to something far deeper, more meaningful and ultimately more interesting: love. It forgoes biting social criticism in preference for Twain's own intelligent examination of the human condition. And it serves as an excellent springboard into the body of this literary giant, who notes, as repeated in the film, "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine - everybody drinks water." This film is certainly a giant in the field of Scientific Romances and of children's entertainment.