The Adventures Of Mark Twain (1986) – Claymation in Blu-ray
Here’s an oddity, recently recently on Blu-ray (and kindly sent to me by) Masters of Cinema. Always nice to watch a film with zero expectations, and this one was a pleasant surprise.
The Adventures Of Mark Twain
(Will Vinton, US, 1985)
A tour-de-force of ambitious stop-motion animation, whose apparently twee premise acts as the springboard for a dazzling – and often dark – study of Twain’s work
Before Nick Park, there was Will Vinton, the stop-motion pioneer who gave life to the name Claymation as well as creating iconic advertising characters like the California Raisins. The Adventures Of Mark Twain was his labour of love, but one so poorly treated it was released in Britain under the crummy title of Comet Quest. But it deserves to be more than a footnote in animation for its audacious, surreal use of stop-motion to reflect the art of literature.
The reason the film works is the same which caused the UK distributor to baulk at its name: Twain himself. A giant in American culture, he’s nowhere near the same touchstone over here, meaning that much of the power and relevance of this film – effectively, one long Twain love-in – is lost in Transatlanticisation. But Twain remains a fascinating and eminently adaptable writer. His pithy epigrammatic wit sounds like movie dialogue forged before movies even had sound, and his feverish imagination devised worlds of escapist adventure and absurdist humour really suited to cinema.
Vinton imagines Twain at the end of his life, aboard a balloon-powered ship en route to meeting Halley’s Comet. It’s a framing device based on the unusual coincidence of the real-life Twain being born, and dying, on consecutive fly-bys by the comet, which allows Vinton to depict the author as maverick and madman, happily embracing death because he’s got his life’s work to be remembered by. And some of that work – the quintessential Twain characters Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher – are along for the ride.
The scenes of Twain pontificating to the kids, as they ask questions and generally act like imbeciles, are severely flawed as drama (imagine a very twee, American version of Doctor Who) and useless as an adaptation of Huck and Sawyer’s adventures despite their authentic lingo. But Vinton sees the bigger picture: this is a story about the act of writing, and he turns the ship into a living library, in which the stories are perpetually being acted out so that the kids can step into Twain’s fiction.
The film comes to life in short, breezy re-enactments of short stories, two in particular leaping to mind. In ‘Adam And Eve’s Diary’, Vinton delivers a very funny, beautifully timed sit-com from Twain’s wry reimagining of Adam as a carefree man-about-Eden narked by the unwelcome arrival of a woman. And yet, in ‘The Mysterious Stranger’, Vinton creates an uncanny dread from the tale of Satan (a robed, headless figure carrying a mask that contorts from a grin to a grimace), who builds a world of plasticine people and then casually destroys it when he tires of their in-fighting. As you can see, it’s a stark, spectral nightmare reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer.
Between these tales, a much more rounded, complex portrayal of Twain emerges than was initially apparent. He was a dark man, and Vinton isn’t shy about showing it – but mostly this is a tribute, and claymation is exactly the right format for demonstrating the fluid synaptic leaps by which a writer creates stories and characters. Ideas literally spill onto the screen, the clay a writhing mass that morphs and tumbles into new shapes. Vinton is Twain’s match for exuberant imagination, and he doesn’t miss a trick. There are incredibly rich, textured shots that belie stop-motion’s famously labour-intensive methods. Vinton simply can’t sit Twain at a organ without giving the pipes pairs of hands that move up and down to play the correct notes, or stop characters’ noses twitches or fingers tapping in the simplest of dialogue scenes. No wonder he never made another feature; he must have been exhausted.