I’m pretty sure that at some point growing up, I saw 1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain, but I don’t remember much of it. Part of the Claymation craze of its day, it seeks to weave some of Twain’s life story with his own tales of adventure and mystery. Having been born in 1835 — the year of Halley’s Comet — Twain believed he and the oddity were inextricably linked, and that he would leave the world on Halley’s next visit in 1910. Strangely enough, he passed away that same year, as predicted.
The events of Adventures are set in this last year of his life, but rather than being a twilight, it’s the beginning of a new adventure. Twain (voiced by James Whitmore) is setting out in an airship to intercept and join the comet as it slings past Earth and ventures once again out into space. Tom Sawyer (Chris Ritchie), Huck Finn (Gary Krug), and Becky Thatcher (Michele Mariana) hitch a ride, and end up on an adventure they never could have expected.
How does it hold up 27 years after its original release? Pretty well, I’d say. The video arrives on DVD clean and clear, with only the occasional speckle popping up here and there. The clay animation is as vibrant and detailed as ever. For me, Claymation, The Muppets, hand-drawn animation, and all of the older (i.e., pre-CGI) styles have an apparent level of complexity that the audience can marvel at and appreciate immediately. For movies like Avatar, the Star Wars prequels, and I, Robot, unless you really understand computer modeling and the hours and talent it takes to render CGI at that detail, it just sort of looks pretty, but I feel there’s a gap in understanding between what you’re seeing and how it’s created. I look at what’s happening in the foreground and background in any given scene in Twain and am impressed with the trouble the sculptors went to to bring that scene to life so completely. And then animate it with thousands of individual posings and camera shots. The effect and complexity that goes into it is not lost on me.
The story itself begins on Earth and ends when they reach the comet, but in between, we’re taken on a tour of some of Twain’s many works, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Mysterious Stranger, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, and an extended look at Extracts from Adam’s Diary and Eve’s Diary. Twain certainly didn’t shy away from lending a critical eye to religious allegory, and spouted off some of his famous quotes like “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” This middle majority of the Halley-bound adventure serves as a decent introduction to his work and sense of humor, though none of the works are by any means here in their entirety. As a Twain sampler, I think it works well.
Special features come in the form of commentary by director Will Vinton, the story behind Claymation, behind the scenes, music of Mark Twain, crew interviews, a still gallery, and trailer for the movie. It’s a pretty good collection of extras that adds about an hour to your experience if you browse them all.
Kids will appreciate the colorful animation and fantastical storytelling. Grown-ups can be reminded of some Twain stories they probably read when they were younger. It can be a little on the slow side at times, and doesn’t try to elicit any particularly strong emotion or tug at the heartstrings, but it’s enjoyable family entertainment just the same. As a Twain fan, I’m probably a little biased; my wife wasn’t as into it, so your enjoyment may be proportional to your familiarity with and enjoyment of the source material.
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