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The following review appeared 7 June 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The magnificent airship sits in a Missouri field, surrounded by astounded gawkers. With a paddle wheel at the stern and a gaudy pilot house perched at the top, it appears to be some kind of delightfully bizarre high-flying hybrid: part Wizard of Oz balloon, part Mississippi steamboat, part carnival attraction.
A banner hanging from the red blimpish center proclaims, "Halley's Comet or Bust." Standing at the lower deck, Mark Twain addresses an understandably curious crowd, explaining the meaning of those words. Twain, dressed in his trademark white suit and brandishing a cigar, tells the wide-eyed onlookers that he intends to rendezvous with the celestial visitor. "I go to meet the comet," he proclaims. "Yes, indeed, I surely plan to . . . Oh, I'm looking forward to that."
It is the last adventure, as he well knows. "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835," Twain said in 1909. "It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.' "
He will make this trip. He will make it in this spectacular vessel of his own construction and design. See it? See it sitting in that Missouri field under an incredibly blue summer sky? Tom Sawyer sees it, and he can't resist the temptation to climb on board and share the adventures. How could he? Huckleberry Finn is reluctant to accompany his comrade, but, as Tom tells him, "You couldn't see an adventure hanging from the end of your nose."
Before long, the ship is taking off with not only Tom and Huck as stowaways, but a frog named Homer, too. Becky Thatcher is on board, as well, and there might just be some type of mysterious stranger lurking in the shadows. They all require company. So follow Tom, scramble on board, and take flight with Mark Twain as your lightning pilot. Go along on The Adventures of Mark Twain.
This is the irresistible invitation that opens The Adventures of Mark Twain, director Will Vinton's daring and imaginative 86-minute film recently released in blu-ray and DVD collector's editions by Magnolia Home Entertainment. Something of a lost gem, the wonderfully clever movie was acclaimed by critics but baffled most audiences when it hit movie theaters in 1985.
Screenplay author Susan Shadburne seizes on a famous Twain line during this opening sequence: "The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds." In the mid-1980s, Vinton, the innovative filmmaker who coined and trademarked the term Claymation, was the man with the new idea.
Vinton was then known as the Oscar-winning director and producer of short stop-motion animated films. That wasn't the new idea. Stop-motion animation had been around almost as long as filmmaking. Stop-motion (or stop-frame) is that painstaking process where models are moved and photographed frame by frame, creating the illusion of movement. The title character in the 1933 version of King Kong was a small model brought to life by stop-motion photography. Vinton's models were fashioned from clay. Hence the term Claymation. His new idea was to make a feature-length film using only this technique. The result was The Adventures of Mark Twain.
A feature-length animated film meant only one thing to audiences of 1985: kid's stuff. Offbeat, whimsical and sometimes quite dark, The Adventures of Mark Twain wasn't quite what you'd call Mickey Mouse fare. The target audiences for Vinton and his team were teenagers and young adults. But it was misguidedly marketed as a movie for kids.
"This isn't really a children's movie, and it was never meant to be," said the film's executive producer, Hugh Kennedy Tirrell. "We tested it, and it played best with college kids and teens. Then it got a G rating. It killed our target audience before we started. We were stunned and very disappointed."
Timing is everything in show business, and The Adventures of Mark Twain, as this bewitching DVD / blu-ray release reminds us, was both slightly and light-years ahead of its time. The year after its release, Vinton hit with his California Raisins commercials, which became an international Claymation phenomenon. Ten years after The Adventures of Mark Twain, the Pixar-produced Toy Story made computer-animated feature films all the rage.
You realize how far computer-generated animation has gone with such films as Shrek and Finding Nemo, but not even this realization can put a dent in your admiration for the boundless imagination, invention, and ambition that fuel the airship gliding through The Adventures of Mark Twain. Indeed, your appreciation only multiplies when you fully grasp the challenges Vinton and his crew faced while trying to launch this wondrous strange craft.
There were no computers. Sticking to a purist's approach, Vinton insisted that everything, even sets, be fashioned from clay and animated through stop-motion. And it was all done on a frazzled shoestring budget of (ready?) $1.5 million. Working in the basement of a house in Portland, Ore., Vinton and his adventurous crew of 17 people took four years to complete the film. Let's put that in some perspective, just to get some notion of what kind of effort went into The Adventures of Mark Twain. The 2009 Pixar film Up had a budget of $175 million and a crew of about 1,000 people.
What emerged from this Portland basement is one of the very few outstanding films inspired by either Twain's life or his works -- in this case, inspired by Twain's life and his works. The Adventures of Mark Twain follows an elderly Twain as he pilots the magical airship toward his meeting with Halley's Comet. The vehicle and journey suggest the Jules Verne-ish Tom Sawyer Abroad, one of many Twain tales slyly referenced in Shadburne's script. There are rattling echoes of this 1894 book, and we quickly see how splendidly Claymation can be utilized to visualize moments from Twain's writings.
The film begins in a lighthearted mood with the children (and us) charmed by the witty, grandfatherly Twain (voiced by James Whitmore). Noticing Homer, Twain remarks that he's "an uncommon fine frog." It was a frog like Homer, he explains to the children, that put him in "the writing business." It's a short Claymation hop from there to a playful telling of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Homer literally melts into the tale, becoming part of the familiar proceedings as a superbly expressive Dan'l Webster. When an outraged Jim Smiley realizes he has been hornswoggled, Homer jumps out of the tale, back with Twain, Tom, Becky, and Huck.
This is just one of dozens of fanciful little touches sure to delight those familiar with Twain's life and works. When the ship's load needs to be lightened, one of the items gleefully tossed overboard is the Paige typesetter that caused Twain so much trouble. As we make our way toward the comet, we are treated to excerpts from the "Diaries" of Adam and Eve, "The Chronicle of Young Satan," and "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven." Serving up intriguing insights into Twain's mind and writing, Shadburne's script also features regular borrowings from Life on the Mississippi, Puddn'head Wilson, Following the Equator, the autobiography, the letters, and the speeches.
The longest and most touching excerpts feature Adam and Eve, but the most deeply disturbing is the scene from "The Chronicle of Young Satan." The film glides into spooky and unnerving territory when Tom, Becky, and Huck wander into a dark room where a young angel named Satan molds a village and people from, well, clay. They watch in horror as an emotionless Satan casually crushes the village and destroys the crude humanoid forms. Satan's mask transforms into a death mask, shrinking into the merest glint in Twain's eye. Vinton pulls back the perspective to reveal Twain's pain-etched face. It's a haunting and unnerving sequence that brilliantly exploits the flexibility of Claymation storytelling.
"Sometimes the old man seems powerful unhappy," Huck says. Sometimes he is. Taking on darker tones, therefore, the movie keeps the children guessing why Twain seems so mirthful one moment, so miserable the next. Even the interior of the airship plays skillfully on this troubling contradiction, with bits and pieces suggesting the Clemens family's Hartford house, a steamboat cabin, and Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus, featured in two Jules Verne novels. There is much humor, of course. There are messages of hope. There also is much talk of death and dying. That's because, before this dreamy, sometimes nightmarish voyage is over, The Adventures of Mark Twain will explore the theory that the writer was an endlessly fascinating study in duality.
Few adages get trotted out more reliably and regularly than the one that assures us, "There are two sides to every story." This familiar proposition certainly has been assiduously applied to Samuel Langhorne Clemens ever since Justin Kaplan kicked the whole duality approach into high gear with his landmark 1966 biography, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain.
The title to Kaplan's incredibly influential work trumpeted the idea that there were two sides to Mark Twain. And Twain provided no end of fuel for this psychological line of inquiry. There was his deep fascination with Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There were all those stories with twins and doubles. There were the numerous and fascinating contradictions. There was that plaintively provocative line from _Following the Equator_: "Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody." There was his very choice of a pen name, with its tease for two and two for tease.
So, understandably, many a Twain scholar has followed Justin Kaplan's lead, deciding that this is, indeed, the story of a man with two sides in constant conflict. It has become the stuff of academic studies, analytical criticism, and, yes, rich debate. And how about an animated feature film? Why not?
So Tom, Huck, and Becky are encountering two Twains: the one in the white suit representing the genial humorist and beloved family author; the other, in a dark suit, representing, well, the dark Twain. It turns out to be quite the exhilarating ride, more faithful to the spirit of Mark Twain than the earlier film titled The Adventures of Mark Twain (the 1944 Warner Bros. "biography" starring Fredric March) or the many disappointing Hollywood adaptations of his novels. A constant marvel in look and content, Vinton's The Adventures of Mark Twain is a stirring realization of Shadburne's goal when fashioning the script: "a film that speaks to grownups looking for meaning."
The DVD and blu-ray packaging lives up to its billing as the collector's edition, with extras that include interviews with Vinton, Shadburne, composer Billy Scream, character designer and lead animator Barry Bruce, and the animator in charge of Huck Finn, Mark Gustafson. There also are short behind-the-scenes features on Claymation and the film's music.
Technically, both the DVD and blu-ray (1080p transfer) look pretty dazzling and both the audio and video transfers appear strong. There are some blips, given the age of the original film, but the overall picture quality is impressive. Overall, I'd say we're in the crystal range -- particularly for a 1985 film.
Interested? Then climb on board this airship and head for the comet. It's a trip well worth taking, and you couldn't be in better company. It was in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Twain told us, "I have found out there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them." Travel with this crew and you'll find plenty to like.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Dawidziak is the TV critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the artistic director of northeast Ohio's Largely Literary Theater Company. His many published books include Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing and Horton Foote's The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay About Mark Twain.