Many years ago my family saw a remarkably charming stop-motion animated TV Christmas Special by Will Vinton and his "Claymation" puppets. Will Vinton is known for animating the California Raisins in 1980's commercials. The Christmas Special was hilarious and the animation was fascinating to watch. Watching it annually has become a family tradition at my house. Turns out that a few years prior, Will Vinton's Claymation team created a full length movie called The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). I've seen a clip from it on YouTube called "creepy, disturbing children's cartoon" or something of that ilk. It is indeed creepy, so naturally I had to see the whole movie.
Mark Twain (James Whitmore) is disgusted with the human race. He is intent upon finding Halley's Comet and crashing into it, thus achieving his "destiny." He takes off in a Jules Verne-inspired airship to pursue the comet, but finds stowaways Tom Sawyer (Chris Ritchie), Becky Thatcher (Michele Mariana), and Huck Finn (Gary Krug) after takeoff. The three children try to convince Twain that his judgment is wrong and that he still has much to offer to humanity that might make a difference. Their efforts aren't just charitable; if they fail, they will share Twain's fate. Along the way they use a magical portal called an "Indexivator" a device that permits them to see and enter scenes from the writings of Twain. Hopefully this will allow the children to get a detailed overview of Twain's philosophy and help them convince the famous author to land.
I confess I am not the greatest fan of Mark Twain's fiction, though I adore his quotes and one liners. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is such an arduous read with its stylized writing. I appreciate the innovation and the story, but I always found it difficult to get into the book itself. Incidentally, I had a similar reaction to The Adventures of Mark Twain. Why are Tom, Huck, and Becky, characters from Twain's book, in the same world as Mark Twain himself? Why does Twain have a huge whimsical airship that would seem more at home in a Dr. Seuss book? Why is there a magical device on the airship that lets you enter the worlds of fictional writing, and how did that even come to be? I don't know, and the movie doesn't seem to know. It's almost as if fanciful concepts were thrown together for the sake of making a fanciful children's movie.
But I don't think this makes a good children's movie. Twain was a thinker and a philosopher. Many of his ideas and viewpoints are depicted in the movie and those will go way, way over the heads of the target audience. It tackles concepts such as life, death, the fleeting existence of man, the nature of God, heaven, hell, love, married life, and pessimism versus optimism. They certainly aren't bad things to discuss, but they are deeper concepts than what seems reasonable for a movie aimed at young children; kids will barely be able to wrap their minds around these ideas if at all.
Through the Indexivator, our heroes see and visit vignettes taken from "The Mysterious Stranger," "The Diaries of Adam and Eve (Letters from the Earth)", "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" a rendering of Twain's first story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and references are made to Twain's other works, such as "The Damned Human Race." I'd never even heard of most of those titles, and you'd be hard pressed to find a six-year-old, or even an eight-year-old who's familiar with these works. The movie seems to be missing its target audience completely.
As I had expected from my experience with the aforementioned Christmas Special, the stop-motion animation is remarkable. If you remember the Gumby cartoons you may recall that the end result can be a bit jerky when using clay models in stop-motion animation. That doesn't really happen here; everything moves very smoothly. Often there are shapeless lumps of clay that will move and form shapes, other times there is beautifully subtle details like water flowing downstream that are captivated with moving clay in subtle ways. It's very impressive.
There are times the animation is so abstract that it becomes downright creepy. The scene from "The Mysterious Stranger" would have scared the bejeezus out of me as a little kid. The character of The Mysterious Stranger is creepy, frightening, and the stuff of nightmares. His soft, eerie voice coupled by the fact that he has no head, just a moving mask on a pole is weird enough, but the fact that it is an all powerful god over a tiny island of land in an empty oblivion makes it even worse. I'm an adult and I felt creeped out watching it. It's a fascinating bit of animation, but I really don't think it's something that ought to be shown to small children.
The Adventures of Mark Twain is a dichotomous mess. On the one hand, it's got some amusing, fanciful qualities that will keep young viewers entertained, but on the other hand it gets deeply philosophical, dark, and even a bit disturbing. It evens out to be an interesting movie that doesn't seem to know where it's going, and misses its target audience by a mile. I don't recommend seeing this with small children present. The script is riddled with much of Mark Twain's wit and wisdom, and fans of Twain will appreciate the many references to his writings, even if young audiences will not. Over all I can't really recommend The Adventures of Mark Twain unless you are an enthusiastic fan of stop-motion animation, of Mark Twain, or of philosophy. If you do appreciate any one of these things, this is a movie you shouldn't miss.
Here is the "Mysterious Stranger" scene to give you a taste for the dark and fascinating animation this movie showcases:
Are you a fan of Mark Twain's writings? Which of his stories is your favorite? Comment below and tell me why.