10/11/2013

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

Film: The Adventures of Mark Twain
Release: 1985, Theatrical
Starring: James Whitmore, Michele Marianna, Gary Krug, Chris Ritchie
Directed by: Will Vinton
IMDB page: Link opens in a new window
Description: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher become stowaways on a magical airship piloted by the famous American author Mark Twain who attempts to catch up with Halley's Comet.

Hans' thoughts:

Famous for it's bizarre imagery and concept, The Adventures of Mark Twain is based entirely on a quote by one of the most talented authors of the latter half of the 19th century. In it, we follow his most famous creations of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher as we're taken on a journey through both his works and his influence on American culture. When trying to describe exactly what this movie is, I keep coming back to the word "bizarre". The film takes place on a magical airship, Tom Sawyer wanting to take over the place because of his sense of adventure, Huck Finn being simple as ever doesn't really know what he wants and Becky just wants to go home. The pilot, Mark Twain, is in the last year of his life. For whatever reason, the creators decided that almost every line he speaks in the movie be a quote of the original author the character is based on, whether it's to push authenticity of the portrayal I can't say for sure, but the voice actor who plays him (James Whitmore) does so with much authority in his voice and with everything being well thought-out. The movie even opens with a reference to the quote that inspired it: 
I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together. - Mark Twain, (1835 - 1910) 

Perhaps the most famous segment of the film is the adaptation of
the unfinished book "The Mysterious Stranger".
Curiously enough, the man actually got his wish and passed away the day following the passing of Halley's Comet. The film also makes little effort to conceal the actual political views of the historical figure, most of the writings adapted for the movie showcased his great disregard for organized religion. A member of the presbyterian church, he wasn't an atheist but he had written some pretty controversial works about the subject, three of which are in the movie. The most famous segment of the movie is one of these, an adaptation of a part of The Chronicles of Young Satan, one of the only finished chapters in "The Mysterious Stranger". It's famous for just how outlandish the tone of the scene is compared to the rest of the film - While most of the film is a mostly child friendly tale, this particular scene triggers 3 or 4 other short, but oddly depressing moments in the film. While I can certainly see the merit of exploring one of America's most famous authors, I have to say I highly question the decision to do so in an animated movie so far removed from reality rather than make it an actual biographical picture. The film is structured much like a package movie (ala Fun & Fancy Free). A main story arc following the kids and Twain, interrupted at times by these weird segments, or as in the case with two of his stories (Letters from Earth & The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County) retold in their entirety and narrated by James Whitmore. 

"The Diary of Adam & Eve (Letters from Earth) is
one of two Twain stories that's been recreated
in it's entirety throughout the film.
While certainly a weird choice, Animation-wise is actually where the movie truly shines. There's not a lot of things that can beat well-done claymation and this film shows exactly why. The fluid nature of the material is used to very good effect throughout the film in several moments amd I actually question whether some of these shots would've packed quite the same punch had they been done with traditional animation or live-action actors. I'm also a big fan of the artstyle of the piece, something about the weird atmosphere it creates in the movie just kept my interest throughout. Strange looking locations, odd creatures and just plain imaginative imagery is probably the films defining points. However there is a problem when it comes to some of the human characters, while all the caricatures are fun and interesting to look at, I could not help not being simply creeped out by the, at times, soulless plain look of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in the film. They just look like living dolls at times and are so out of place compared to the rest of the characters and creatures in the film that they really become polarizing to everything else that's going on.

Voice acting in the film is average at best, while Whitmore does a well-enough job at making Twain seem like a larger than life figure most of the other voice actors are well, passable. I really liked the performance of Michele Marianna as Satan in the Mysterious Stranger segment, but we mostly hear her in the role of Becky Thatcher and there she's just unnoticeable. The voice actors of Tom Sawyer of Huck Finn both do a very stiff performance as their characters, as none of their lines feels natural or filled with any sort of emotion at all. They're just your average "kid voices" in the movie. This is a big problem, as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are actually the two characters besides Twain himself who has the most lines - meaning a good chunk of audiences will probably be bored by large parts of the movie. The soundtrack is, mostly talking and sound effects. There is almost no music in it and it kinda takes away from some of the more dramatic moments - on the other hand, they serve to make the bizarre moments really have a thick and intriguing atmosphere.

A weird look at an outspoken author, The Adventures of Mark Twain still serves to give a glimpse of insight into a very well-spoken man and his career. I probably could've picked several other historical figures more fit for an animated childrens movie but for what it's worth the amount of ambition behind the piece certainly served to shine through the faults and hold my interest as well as spark my interest in knowing more about the author. If this was the original intention of the film then I would say "Mission Accomplished!". 
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