The Adventures of Mark Twain Review
In 1944 Warner Bros Pictures produced The Adventures of Mark Twain, a glossy biopic of the celebrated author with Fredric March occupying the lead role. This being Hollywood it, of course, took certain liberties with its subject and was riddled with inaccuracies. But it’s probably safe to say that it represents a more accurate portrayal than Will Vinton’s 1985 film of the same name. Made entirely using the director’s own Claymation techniques (3D stop motion wherein everything from the surfaces down to the tiniest of details has been fashioned out of clay), this particular Adventures of Mark Twain imagines the author’s final days aboard a steampunk concoction that is part air balloon, part paddle steamer and part spaceship. Along for the ride are three stowaways - his own creations Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher - plus a frog and mysterious figure, barely glimpsed. He’s travelling towards Halley’s Comet, which had last appeared on the day of his birth, but in the meantime he’s able to tell his youthful companions a tale or two…
The resultant film is a bizarre mixture of science fiction, comedy and, arguably, biopic given how much of Twain’s dialogue was drawn from his own words. Obviously they weren’t originally spoken aboard Vinton’s paddle steamer-spaceship-balloon, but nevertheless it could be said that a certain fidelity of character is present. Meanwhile the stories he relates during the running time are, of course, all Twain derived: the short stories The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865) and Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909); a combination of his Adam and Eve-derived tales told in diary form; and scenes from his final (unfinished) novel, The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously in 1916. In other words you sense that Vinton was trying to convey something of the man, both through his own character and his works. It’s just that it all comes wrapped up within a fantastical framework - but then this was the eighties, after all, and how better to appeal to the youth during that decade?
Prior to The Adventures of Mark Twain Vinton had been making Claymation films for some years. (The name was his own invention and soon trademarked so as to differentiate his style from other stop motion practitioners.) His first experiments were conducted whilst still at college and eventually led to 1974’s Closed Sundays, which would earn him an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Further Oscar nods were to appear over the years, as was work that would encompass television and commercials as well as the big screen. With more films, ads and TV specials also came a diversity of output, ranging from the Tolstoy adaptation Martin the Cobbler to the more satirical and adult-targeted likes of The Great Cognito to the educationally-minded Dinosaurs and The Creation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it came to Claymation’s first feature, there would be an attempt to encompass all of these approaches and elements into a single running time.
As such the resulting film is something of a curiosity. You sense that it wants to prompt its younger audience members straight to the nearest Huckleberry Finn book, but at the same time is fully aware that it’s easier to do so aboard a spaceship with plenty of fantastical inventions. The various short stories that interweave the main narrative - especially the Adam and Eve tales - can be viewed as an attempt to acknowledge the more adult viewers with their satirical touches and slightly more knowing sense of humour. And then there are the aspects which come straight out of leftfield and no doubt account, in part, for The Adventures of Mark Twain’s cult following. The Mysterious Stranger, in particular, is a dark chapter, featuring a headless Satan (he communicates via a masque) and wanton destruction. Indeed, it would seem entirely out of place within a children’s film, but then this isn’t a work on which to apply easy labels. Elsewhere we also find Heaven as re-imagined as a disco populated by multi-headed aliens donning “Let’s Rock” t-shirts. In other words, convention was hardly high up on Vinton’s priorities.
It’s this wayward blend that makes The Adventures of Mark Twain both a fascinating watch and something of a maddening one. The tonal shifts keep proceedings fresh, but they also prevent the film from truly telling its story. Vinton and his wife Susan Shadburne (who wrote the screenplay) seem to favour the shorter tales over the main one, meaning that the Twain-starring framework is somewhat limp and under-developed. Certainly it contains plenty for the eye - a flying machine that can mend itself or the ‘Index-ovator’ which allows the ship’s passengers to move not only from deck to deck but also to different Twain stories (cue Injun Joe cameo) - but the central elements relating to Twain’s old age and his desire to reach Halley’s Comet remain a little hazy. Ironically, the film was released as Comet Quest in the UK, when arguably this is its least memorable element.
Despite such flaws there’s plenty to appreciate. The animation style, of course, is terrific and full of wonderful ideas or tiny moments. It’s less slick than some of Vinton’s future projects or indeed the films of Aardman once they moved into features, though no doubt many will see the comparative lack of polish as being part of the charm. The Adventures of Mark Twain also used front projection techniques for its special effects - the flying spaceship, and so on - meaning that it also retains a distinctly eighties fantasy look. (Around the same time Claymation were also working on some of the special effects to Disney’s Return to Oz - earning themselves another Oscar nomination.) The voice work is also impressive, particularly James Whitmore as Twain and the distinctive multi-channelled take on Satan. Indeed, the whole Mysterious Stranger portion is more than worthy of a look simply because it stands out as being so unexpected and so dark within the context of this film. It may mess with the overall tone, but as said this is a hardly a conventional or easily definable work. As such it may very well turn off some viewers, though there should be just as many, if not more, who will find this a curious delight. The fact it now comes on an extras-packed Blu-ray can only help…
Eureka have a fairly eclectic line-up over the next few months, both as part of their Masters of Cinema range and in general. However, I’m tempting to say that The Adventures of Mark Twain is the most unexpected, especially for a catalogue title getting the Blu-ray treatment. It’s actually available as both region free Blu-ray and DVD editions, though it’s the HD version which is under review here. The film itself comes in a ratio of 1.78:1 and with the original stereo soundtrack available in DTS-HD Master Audio or LPCM formats. Optional English subtitles are also available. The presentation is a good one, with strong colours and detail (you can see the strings whenever a fly is onscreen, for example) but also some damage in the form of intermittent tramlining and occasional specks of dirt. The use of front projection also necessarily prompts heavier grain whenever its utilised, an aspect all the more apparent when viewing in high definition. From a technical standpoint there would appear to be no issues with Eureka maintaining their usual (and much preferred) hands off approach. As for the soundtrack, both formats come across strongly with any flaws appearing to be in the sound design itself as opposed to the encode. (I’ll confess that I had issues with Billy Scream’s dated sampler-heavy scoring.)
Extras are plentiful and each is deserving of a place. Vinton is on hand for a full-length commentary that’s both informative and enthusiastic. Charmingly he apologises whenever he goes quiet, blaming the quality of the dialogue and Whitmore’s delivery. For the most part he provides a general overview of the film’s production, discussing the key decisions behind its making but still occasionally going into greater detail. He’s also present amongst the interviewees - 54 minutes’ worth, in fact, which also feature Barry Bruce (designer and animator), Billy Scream (composer), Mark Gustafson (designer of the Huck Finn character) and Susan Shadburne (writer and co-producer). Obviously at such a length we get plenty more detail here too, though the answers range from the serious to the semi-serious. Questions such as whether Gustafson identified with his creation are understandably less interesting than the nuts and bolts of the production - or maybe that’s just me?
In contrast to these full-length additions, we also find briefer featurettes. One, a wordless look at the production on a Claymation film, is just seven minutes in length, whilst the other, a breathless 17-minute whirl through the history of Claymation, is similarly brisk. Neither wastes a second with the latter, in particular, providing a wealth of information, not to mention clips, as it takes us from Vinton’s earliest student experiments up to his computer animated M&M commercials. Of course, many of the clips prove tantalising making it a slight disappointment that this disc couldn’t find any room (or was unable to secure the rights to) some of the shorts.
Rounding off the package we also get various segments of the score available as audio tracks (with pristine sound), design gallery and the original theatrical trailer.