“It’s just like piloting a river; you get to know the shape of it. Like following a hall at home in the dark, and even if you feel some fear, you know that no harm can come to you, for you’ve traveled that hallway a hundred times with nothin’ but bare feet and faith.”
The Scoop: 1985 G, directed by Will Vinton and starring James Whitmore, Chris Ritchie, Gary Krug, Michele Mariana, John Morrison and Carol Edelman.
Tagline: Where dreams become reality.
Summary Capsule: Mark Twain seeks Halley’s Comet on an airship, accompanied by some of his own characters. Things get strange.
Deneb’s review: Sometimes you really don’t know what to expect.
That’s a pretty universal law anyway, but when it comes to movies, it’s doubly so. If you’re anything like me, there are probably quite a few bits of filmic entertainment floating around in the popular consciousness that you’ve been hearing about for years, but haven’t seen yourself. What with the ‘Net and all, it’s impossible to completely insulate yourself from everyone else’s impressions of things these days, and no matter how spoiler-phobic and scrupulously careful you are, you are bound to glean at least a few things about most movies before you see them – especially older ones. Especially especially older ones that have gained a cult following, and that people tend to chatter excitedly about whenever they find others who’ve seen them.
Such a film is The Adventures of Mark Twain, a film of which I thought I’d gained a semi-accurate impression over the years. You know the drill; the particulars are vague, but there’s such-and-such and such-and-such, and the tone is like such-and-such, and there are certain scenes that get mentioned a lot – that sort of thing.
I thought I had a basic idea of what I was getting into, is what I was saying – and overall, having finally seen it, I’d say I was broadly correct. With exceptions, certainly; but we’ll get to them in a bit. Let’s just get the ball rolling here.
As the film begins, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher – yes, as in the characters from the book(s) – are hanging around on a summer’s day without much to do when they hear of some excitement a-brewin’. Seems that Halley’s Comet is in the skies again, and there’s an eccentric old guy who plans to go after it in an airship. His name? Mark Twain.
Now, naturally you can’t expect such seasoned meddling kids as these three to not sneak on board the airship, and before they can sneak off of it again, it’s launched. Fortunately, Mr. Twain is happy to see them – how could he not be; they’re his characters, after all (don’t think about this too long or you’ll get a headache) – and welcomes them aboard as members of the crew.
All well and good, right? Well… yes and no. Yes as in a little adventure is always welcome; no as in things are a lot stranger than they first appear. The Mark Twain (yes, the ship is named after its owner) is a weird damn vehicle that seems to meddle with the laws of space. There are more people on board than is immediately apparent, and more rooms – if you can call all of them that.
Then there’s Twain himself. He’s a pretty nice old guy, all things considered, but it’s made clear pretty early on that he has a highly personal reason for wanting to reach this comet. That reason? He’s convinced that it marks the end of his life, and he intends to go out in style…
Let me start by admitting that this movie probably wasn’t really meant for me. Not that I’m thereby saying it’s not my kind of movie or anything; it’s just that I’m not as caught up on the works of Mark Twain as I might be – and this movie is nothing if not a love letter to the man, his writings, and his overall outlook on life. Several of his stories are adapted here in one form or another, and while enough of these have entered the popular consciousness that I was able to recognize a few sizable bits and pieces, I have no doubt that if you’ve actually read the stuff in question, you’ll get more out of it than I did. (Not that I didn’t get anything out of it, but… well, you know what I mean.)
Also in the ‘I have reservations’ column, it should be pointed out that, considering that AoMT is theoretically for kids, it can be quite amazingly dark. Rather legendarily so, in fact – if you ask your average layman-who-hasn’t-seen-the-movie about it, there’s a fair chance they’ll know it from the ‘Mysterious Stranger’ sequence, which has gotten a lot of play on YouTube. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that it’s not suitable for the little kidlets. I mean, if the Wicked Witch of the West makes them run and hide, this one could well give ‘em nightmares for weeks.
Really, though, it’s not surprising, given that the whole movie is literally about a suicidal quest – and by that I don’t mean ‘a quest that in all likelihood you won’t be coming back from’, I mean a quest wherein suicide is the stated goal. It’s softened up a bit by being portrayed as the fitting climax to a creative and eventful life, but whether or not you agree with what Twain is doing, there’s no denying that the guy is setting out planning to off himself, which is… a bit of a controversial decision, yes? A little difficult to explain to the rugrats? Might not sit well with everybody?
Mind you, all this is OK with me. I have no problem with dark films, and I have no problem with dark family films – some of my favorite movies fall into that latter category. If anything, I kinda regret that those sorts of movies aren’t common anymore – there’s a sort of logical progression from ‘that’s scary; I don’t wanna watch it!’ to ‘It was scary, but that did make it memorable’ to ‘hey, I remember that, maybe I should give it another shot’ to ‘this stuff is great!’ Kids need a little scariness in their lives. If Mark Twain had stuck to its guns and been solidly dark and freaky all the way, I would have defended that decision.
It doesn’t, though. In fact, it’s very inconsistent with its tone, which is kind of all over the map. Sometimes it’s dark and scary, sometimes it’s humorous, sometimes it’s philosophical, sometimes it’s sad – none of which, mind you, are bad things in and of themselves, but there’s not much logical narrative flow from one to another. This applies to the framing story as well – it’s a decent adventure hook, but there’s little variety in what actually happens; Tom, Mark and Becky basically spend two-thirds of the movie vacillating between ‘Mr. Twain is kind of a cool old dude’ and ‘this guy is nuts, he’ll kill us all; we’ve gotta get outta here!’ The latter does come to a climax of sorts, but – well, let’s just say that a driving, edge-of-your seat plot is not really what the movie has to offer.
So what does it have to offer, then? A fair amount, actually.
To start with, this is an animated movie of a sort that is rare nowadays. It was directed by Will Vinton, best known for his work on the California Raisins commercials/shorts (although he’s done lots of other stuff) and if you’ve ever seen those, you already know more or less what to expect in terms of quality. It’s old-school claymation at its finest, of a variety that has largely been driven out by the slicker Burton/Selick style. This is much rougher and ‘cartoonier’, for lack of a better term, but for that reason it also feels much more personal. You can really tell that someone slaved over those little blobs of plasticene until they were juuuust right – even when the end result is a little awkward in spots, that care and attention shines through.
Furthermore, the inconsistency of tone is the only real problem I have with the individual vignettes – taken purely on their own, they all work quite well. Like I said, I’m not quite up on my Twain, but they all seem to be reasonably faithful adaptations, if sprinkled with a more contemporary viewpoint now and then for humor’s sake. They’re colorful, they’re lively, they make clever use of the source material – ain’t nothin’ wrong with them.
And really, the same applies to the framing story as well – taken purely on its own, there’s nothing wrong with it; it just feels a tad over-stretched. Still, there’s some effective material at its heart, and it does provide plenty of opportunities for the animators to strut their stuff – the scenes where the Mark Twain is streaking through the skies on its way to the comet are particularly beautiful. Its basic purpose is as a showcase to the other tales, so it’s not surprising that the thing feels a little hollow on its own – but that’s fine, because they fill it up.
So far as characters go, there’s really only four worth mentioning – Tom, Huck, Becky, and the ship’s namesake captain. The first three are basically our viewpoint characters here, being introduced to the airship’s selection of literary wonders in much the same way we (or, at least, those of us who haven’t read the books yet) are.
It’s an effective enough device, but unfortunately it doesn’t leave a lot of room for character development. To the film’s credit, there is some; it just doesn’t progress much beyond one-note. Of the three, Becky is plucky and feisty, Huck is the laid-back voice of reason, and Tom is egotistical, adventurous and, frankly, somewhat bone-headed. He’s more or less the leader of the trio by virtue of having the most motivation, but that motivation largely boils down to A: getting famous somehow, B: getting off the airship (or taking it over; he vacillates a bit between the two) and C: showing up that darn Becky Thatcher, ‘cause she’s a girl, dagnabbit, and his he-man pride just will not allow him to be one-upped by her. From what I remember of the source material, this is accurate enough characterization, but that doesn’t make him any more likable. Honestly, he’s kind of annoying – not enough to sink the movie or anything, but I frequently found myself wishing he’d stop babbling on about being an “aeronort” and start living up to his big words.
The film’s real main character, though, is, of course, Mark Twain himself, who, fittingly, is portrayed by the only ‘name’ actor in the cast, James Whitmore. He does an excellent job in the role, projecting avuncular wit and weary cynicism in roughly equal measures, and overall coming across as someone who would be awesome to have a conversation with – which, from what I’ve heard, is more or less how he was in real life, so kudos for accuracy.
The interesting thing about movie-Twain, though, is that he remains a figure of mystery throughout. Sure, we find out bits and pieces about him, but there are a lot of questions that never really get answered, and a frequent occurrence is the kids being blindsided by yet another odd thing about their host. Some of these are spoilers, so I won’t go into them, but suffice it to say that he is one weird guy, and the fact that we never see things from his viewpoint makes him seem weirder still.
It’s a good narrative strategy – the less we know, the greater our impression of him as a sort of authorial wizard, a figure of mystery who can theoretically do just about anything, or, at least, anything that fits within his body of writing. If you want to romanticize an author, there are worse ways of doing it.
So with all that said, how did The Adventures of Mark Twain live up to/defy my expectations? Well, I was expecting a good movie and I got it; I was expecting a freaky-weird movie and I got that, too. I wasn’t expecting… well, heck, a lot of things. The humor, I guess, and the surprisingly touching/poignant moments. Not all good, but mostly. On a certain level, I honestly think it might have worked better as a sort of anthology series – Twain had a large enough body of work that it could have lasted a good long while on TV, which would have remedied most of the pacing issues – but I’m certainly not going to complain about what we got instead.
Do I recommend it? Sure, it’s good stuff. I wouldn’t necessarily advise showing it to really tiny kids – I guarantee you, Junior, age 5, is not going to enjoy having the Mysterious Stranger traipsing through his dreams – but for most other folks, absolutely. It’s a tribute to a classic figure of American literature that will entertain whether or not you’re familiar with his work – that’s a tribute done right, says I.
Now, I wonder how much an airship costs? Lots and lots and lots, you say? Better get saving…
- Twain mentions that the comet won’t be around again “‘til I’m a hundred and fifty.” The movie was released in 1985, when Halley’s Comet was again approaching the Earth, and when he would indeed have been 150 years old.
- Most of the witty lines Twain spouts here are actual quotes from the man himself. This is due to the fact that Will Vinton’s wife, who wrote the screenplay, is a Mark Twain scholar.
- This was the first full-length claymation feature ever released.
- At one point, Tom is about to throw out a manuscript labeled ‘The Mysterious Stranger’ only for Twain to protest that it hasn’t been published yet. This is pretty close to the truth; ‘The Mysterious Stranger’ was his last, unfinished work – the segment in the film is based on a heavily edited version published in 1916.
- In the UK, the film was re-titled ‘Comet Quest’, since Mark Twain is not as well-known there.
Huck: What’s a classic?
Mark Twain: Somethin’ everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.
Stranger: I find you humans quite interesting – even though you are a worthless, greedy lot.
Mark Twain: Naked people have little or no influence in society.
Eve: I think it is a man. I had never seen one, but it looked like one. I feel more curiosity about it than about any of the other reptiles. It has frowsy hair, no hips, and tapers like a carrot, so I think it is a reptile, though it may be architecture.
Mark Twain: There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.
Tom: Can’t you see it? ‘Tom Sawyer, Aeronort, Saves Airborne Friends From Madman’s Death-wish!’
Mark Twain: When I get over on the other side, I want to use my influence to have the human race drowned again – this time, drowned good. No omission. No Ark.
Snake: Congratulations, my dear! You have dissscovered the law of gravity.
Eve: Why, so I have!
Captain Stormfield: I’m from the world.
Gatekeeper: Which world?
Captain Stormfield: Why, uh – the world, of course.
Mark Twain: A cauliflower is just a cabbage with a college education.
Adam: The new creature says ‘it looks like grass’. That is not a reason.
Stranger: Life itself is only a vision, a dream. Nothing exists save empty space and you – and you are but a thought.
Mark Twain: Confidence protects children – and idiots. I know it’s true; I’ve tested it.
Adam: I have not seen a fish that could laugh. This makes me doubt.
Mark Twain: I realize that from the cradle up, I have been like the rest of the race – never quite sane at night.
Huck: Why don’t we just take the axe and smash it now?
Tom: What’s the good of a plan if it’s no more trouble than that?
Mark Twain: You look about as disappointed as Presbyterians in Hell.
Jim Smiley: All a frog wants is educatin’, and he can do most anything!
Adam: What is it?
Adam: How do you know?
Eve: It looks like fire!
Adam: I foresee trouble. We’ll immigrate.
Stranger: I can do no wrong, for I do not know what it is.
Mark Twain: It’s just like piloting a river; you get to know the shape of it. Like following a hall at home in the dark, and even if you feel some fear, you know that no harm can come to you, for you’ve traveled that hallway a hundred times with nothin’ but bare feet and faith.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Return to Oz
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead