When director/producer Will Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain debuted in 1986, the film was universally hailed as a major achievement in 3D clay animation. Before it, Claymation had only been seen in short experimental films and children’s television shows. After it, while Adventures opened the door for new uses of stop action animation, no other full-length feature film has attempted to reproduce what Vinton’s team accomplished. So, nearly 25 years after its initial release, The Adventures of Mark Twain stands as a unique milestone in film history, a timeless classic more than worthy of being appreciated anew in a Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition.”
Then and now, Adventures impresses on a variety of levels. First, there’s the imaginative script. The story opens with the fictional Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher seeing Mark Twain about to take off in a fantastic Jules Verne-inspired airship on its way to catch Halley’s Comet in 1910. The children stow away on the ship and learn Twain—voiced by the venerable James Whitmore– was expecting them. While Huck, Tom, and Becky fear they’ll be killed when the ship meets up with the comet, they discover the “Indexivator,” a device that permits them to see scenes from the writings of Twain.
Thus, the trio, and we the audience, are treated to fanciful adaptations of passages from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfieled’s Visit to Heaven,” The Mysterious Stranger, and a generous sampling from The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Throughout, we hear much of the wit and wisdom of Twain from various other works in scripted dialogue with his most famous characters. Hence, 90% of the material comes from America’s most celebrated humorist.
Of course, what makes Adventures so special, even magical, is the astonishing visuals painstakingly assembled and shot on a comparatively modest budget. Based in Oregon, the small creative team took approximately four years to pull it off.
As Vinton, who holds the trademark for the term “Claymation,” explains in his commentary track and in a separate interview, his vision was that every part of Adventures would use plasticine clay and not any mixed media. As a result, every layer of the film is animated clay, from the painted backgrounds of sky and water as well as the moving characters. As walking and running were difficult to make believable, they stylized leg movements for comic effects, notably in the Adam and Eve sections.
Naturally, a “Collector’s Edition” should include bonuses that get behind the scenes of such a production. Beyond the obligatory director’s commentary track, trailer, still gallery, and musical selections, we get extensive interviews with crew members from animators, sculptors, musical composer Billy Scream, and screenwriter Susan Shadburne.
While much of this detail will be only of interest to film students, the history of Claymation is well worth the attention of all viewers. Beginning with the first faltering attempts in the 1920s, the video traces the history of Claymation, not surprisingly centering on the work of Vinton. This includes the legacy of Adventures in Vinton’s later projects with Michael Jackson and commercials with the California Raisins and M&Ms. It is, however, but an introduction to the subject leaving out, for example, Art Clokey’s Gumby and Pokie series.
As writer Shadburne observed, The Adventures of Mark Twain is 86 minutes of entertainment an adult audience can enjoy. The story is about a tired elderly man who wants to die and join his loved ones in the next world. Shadburne is no doubt correct saying women get many laughs during the Adam and Eve sections where Adam admittedly gets the short end of the battle of the sexes stick.
It’s perhaps a spoiler to say this, but there are two Twains on the airship. One is the white-suited humorist, the other a dark figure representing Twain’s cynical side. This duality is one reason Twain experts and scholars appreciated the film when it debuted as it used the writer’s works to demonstrate the psychology of Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens. In fact, there are inside jokes only a Twainian will get, like the jettisoning of the Paige typesetter in the climatic scene. Unless you know just why that investment was a disaster for the real Twain, that’s one moment in the film for a select audience.
For everyone else, there’s more than enough humor and fantasy to keep kids of all ages happy. There are three-headed aliens in heaven, a frog who saves the day in the end, a man who doesn’t know the difference between a bear and a baby, not to mention Twain aphorisms like “Always obey your parents, when they’re present.” “Naked people have little to no influence in society.” “A cauliflower is but a cabbage with a college education.”
So The Adventures of Mark Twain shouldn’t be categorized as a special effects tour de force and little more. It’s a spectacular film appropriately now available on Blu-ray in widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 that showcases all the eye-popping imagination even more superbly than when it was released first time around. Get the kids to put the videogames away for an evening and take a trip with Huck, Tom, Becky, and the man who first breathed life into them. If you have a family, this one is for you.