Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we review an animated journey through the work of one of the most famous American authors, from Claymation auteur Will Vinton: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, The Adventures of Mark Twain will seem like another effort by the mass media to present an icon of the classical arts in a way that is appealing to "the youth of today." And it is that; animation is a time-honored vehicle for making something appealing to children. But unlike similar efforts which insulted their audience's intelligence by trying to make their subjects "relatable" ("Beethoven is like heavy metal music!" "Shakespeare was a rapper!") Mark Twain is faithful to its core source material, namely the man and his works. Most of the dialogue spoken by Twain in the film comes from his writings, and only the occasional liberty is taken (as far as I can tell) with the characters he created.

The film itself is a collection of animated versions of some of Twain's works, linked together with a story about Mark Twain and his best known characters, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher, flying in a blimp to meet up with Halley's Comet. This part of the film is inspired by a legend about the circumstances of Twain's birth and death, most likely begun by the writer himself. Twain claimed that he was born while the comet was visible in the sky, in 1835, and the legend says that when he died in 1910, the comet had returned and could again be seen in the sky. While it is true that Halley's Comet did visit Earth in 1835 and 1910, it is unlikely that it was visible at the time of Twain's birth or death. But then again, this is a cartoon about people flying off to catch a comet in a blimp, so I say pick your battles if you're gonna sweat the details.

It's to the film's credit that only a short time is spent on Twain's best known works, and in that time only one of them, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", is recounted in detail. "The Adventures of Tom Sawer" is mentioned later, but only briefly referenced. Instead the film tries to broaden our horizons, introducing us to stories like "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven", "The Diaries of Adam and Eve", and "The Mysterious Stranger". Because the film is making the point of showing us things about Mark Twain the writer that we likely didn't know previously, the film occasionally goes to some dark places, as Twain himself occasionally went to some dark places in his writing. The Mysterious Stranger scene in particular is downright existentialist.

Through it all, we are treated to the work of a master animator at the peak of his powers. This is claymation in its truest sense: the characters and all the settings are made out of actual modeling clay (as opposed to foam on wire frames, a la Wallace and Gromit), and backgrounds are done in watercolors. Visually the film is a sight to behold. What meant the most to me, though, is the portrayal of the characters themselves. It's a common temptation, when attempting to present very old characters to modern audiences, to "modernize" them, especially if those characters are to be presented to children. I understand why this is, but the result is often an anachronistic creature that has very little in common with its original self.

Mark Twain, thankfully, resists this temptation, instead presenting Tom, Huck and Becky in line with the way these characters are presented in the works that made them famous. This does result in some colorfully archaic dialogue -- "Great Scott! What a contraption!" -- but it also introduces the characters accurately. If, for example, you read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" after watching this movie, you're going to meet the same boy with dreams of high adventure and a severe work allergy that you see here.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is a challenging movie to watch, especially if you're only familiar with modern animation. Twain's dialogue in particular will be difficult for younger viewers to understand (and, sadly, probably many older ones as well). But this is still a fine example of what animation can be, if it is set free from the restrictive ideas that animation is "only for children", or that it must be "light". This movie is a must-see for animation fans.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is rated G.

Robert's Score: 10 / 10

Make sure to check us out and like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram for all of our reviews, news, trailers, and much, much more!!!

No comments:

Post a Comment