Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, from my personal collection. Originally a gift from my friend Ben.

On New Year's Eve my plans were unexpectedly canceled, and I ended up staying in by myself and it was actually really nice since honestly I've always found it to be kind of an annoying holiday. The only bad thing was all the technology in my house decided to stop working that night so my plan to watch some expiring Netflix instant movies didn't pan out, and I couldn't use our projector. In the end I decided to watch one of the many dvd's I own but have never seen. The Adventures of Mark Twain promised to be a bit of claymation weirdness, which seemed a good way to end the year. The film is inspired by a remark from Twain that since he was born under Halley's Comet, he'd go out with it too (and he did indeed pass away the day after the comet returned in 1910). In this fanciful tale, the aging writer travels to meet the comet in a magical airship, accompanied by three if his own creations: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher. During their journey the kids hear some of Twain's stories and interact with some of his weirder characters.

I've gotta say I really didn't know what I was getting into with this, and I think that worked out just fine. I'm not too familiar with Mark Twain or his work, and what I have read is the more folksy or mainstream stuff, so I did not expect all the full-on weirdness from his stories. The film starts out kind of dull, with Tom, Huck, and Becky chilling with Twain as he spouts adages and talks about a leaping frog contest. As I sat there unsure if this movie was actually interesting, it took a turn for the better during a funny segment about Adam and Eve, taken from his parody of Genesis, "Extracts from Adam's Diary." By the time we hit the section about Captain Stormfield's arrival at a version of heaven for disco-dancing aliens, I knew this movie was for me. It's funny and imaginative, strange and adventurous, and cleverly broken up into different visualizations of Twain's short stories. The most memorable segment comes from his last manuscript, left unfinished when he died, and it's got a terrifying demon/angel/alien creature who shows the children how fucked up humans are. This movie gets surprisingly nihilistic for a supposed "family" feature, but I guess with such a fatalistic premise it shouldn't be a shock.

While I enjoyed the bizarre script and goofy storytelling, it was the animation that won me over. This was apparently the first full-length claymation feature, and the extreme talent on board is obvious. There is more expression and feeling in these clay faces than I've seen in any recent CG-animated film, and I just loved the animation style. There are some beautiful landscapes, and lots of really fun little moments. Twain's airship has some great effects and painstaking attention to detail. The sequence with the Mysterious Stranger is dark as hell due to its unsettling visuals, while the whimsical shenanigans of the kids are made sillier by their exaggerated character design. Regardless of anyone's opinions about Twain and his writing, this film is more than worth it for the animation alone. I'm still thinking about the end sequence where Twain merges with the comet and becomes this big, beautiful yellow cloud that encourages the children to fly the ship themselves. And there are some lovely things done with water. And seriously, the facial expressions: just excellent.

I may have been a bit bored at the start but I'm so glad I stuck around for this oddball bit of entertainment. The animation is wonderful and the writing is equal parts funny and darkly bizarre, which I appreciated. I kept expecting an awkward moment when the kids would discover that they were just characters in Twain's books but somehow that never happened. I guess a juvenile existential crisis would have been a bit much even for this movie.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I wanted more stop-motion adventure, so maybe something like James and the Giant Peach.

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