Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Microreview [film]: The Adventures of Mark Twain

The Meat

If you were alive and creating memories in the United States during 1985/86, you likely remember the craze surrounding Back to the Future, and the craze surrounding Halley's Comet. Bright enough to be seen by the naked eye, Halley's Comet comes around once every 75 years, so for most people it was the only time in their life that the comet would be visible. Of course, some people live long enough at the right time and are able to cross paths with the comet twice. Mark Twain was one of these people, born as the comet appeared in 1835, and dying when it reappeared in 1910.

I remember one Saturday afternoon during or immediately after the comet-o-mania, flipping through the channels and coming across a stop-motion movie about Mark Twain chasing Halley's Comet in a giant airship. I probably saw about thirty minutes from the middle of the movie before the family had to leave and go somewhere, so I never saw the end and never knew what it was called, but I never forgot about it, either. So a few weeks ago when The Adventures of Mark Twain popped up on Netflix, I was both surprised and very, very happy to be able to finally close the loop on this moment from my childhood.

In the film, Tom Sawyer wants to become an "aeronaurt," an outer-space explorer, and when he and Huck Finn see Becky Thatcher at the gala launch of the writer Mark Twain's flying airship, Tom decides he has to get onboard. Twain is going off in pursuit of Halley's Comet, to which he feels cosmically and spiritually bound, and at first he doesn't realize he has stowaways slinking around his magical, proto-steampunk flying colossus. On the ship, the kids are exposed to some of the lesser-known writings of Mark Twain, including The Diary of Adam and Eve, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, and The Damned Human Race. All the while, a shadow Twain lurks just off-screen, luring the kids to danger and putting the entire voyage at risk. This shadow Twain is where much of the film's power lies, serving as a metaphor for both Twain himself, and the entire human condition -- the uneasy co-existence of light and dark inside each of us.

Produced and directed by Will Vinton, the stop-motion pioneer who would go on to create the California Raisins animations, the film seems to have almost completely disappeared for 20 years. Wikipedia reports that it was released theatrically in only 7 cities in 1985, and didn't see a video release until 2006. It's a shame. The fact that this film stuck with me for nearly thirty years is a testament to what it accomplishes. The Adventures of Mark Twain is a witty, playful, dark, and thought-provoking film that is a fitting tribute to Twain himself. Animated in clay, it retains a tactile, handmade quality that is more coarse than the stop-motion work that Tim Burton helped popularize subsequently, but also more human and inviting. Twain's was a singular genius, and this film gets him right, which is no small feat.

The Math

Objective Quality: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for the amazing, and legitimately disturbing, The Damned Human Race segment

Penalties: None

Cult Movie Coefficient: 9/10, very high quality/standout in its category

Click here to read up on our scoring system, and why a "9" is serious business.