The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) Directed by Will Vinton

Mark Twain, voiced by the legendary James Whitmore! 

Tonight I had the pleasure of watching a classic animated feature I hadn’t seen since I was a child.  It was the Claymation feature “The Adventures of Mark Twain”, directed by Will Vinton.  And what a terrific movie it is too.  I gotta say out of my own personal opinion, I think the 80’s was a really great time for animation.  It was a time when animation for the most part was ignored by the studios, and because there were films that were creatively-driven, we got some masterful storytelling by great artists.  The stories were not only engaging, they were dark and had an edge to them.  They explored important themes that never talked down to children.  In “The Adventures of Mark Twain”, the whole subject of the film is about life and death.  The famous writer was born when Haley’s comet passed the Earth, and then he died when the comet returned 70 years later.

The basic premise is that Mark Twain (voiced by the amazing character actor James Whitmore), at the end of his life, has built a mysterious, magic airship so he can fly directly into Haleys comet.  His most famous creations, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher have stowed away on his airship, and the film covers his life through the stories he’s told.  Twain tells them to the children as they journey towards the comet.  He also faces ahead with dark brooding emotion as he prepares to journey into the unknown at the end of his life.  The story balances the light and the dark with the stories that are told.  Through a magic portal elevator, the children are able to go into some of Twains various stories, and at one point they even have an encounter with Satan.  
I want to talk about the scene with Satan, which is where the film actually goes to a dark place.  First off, the way Satan is portrayed is just cool and scary.  He’s a headless body, carrying a theatrical mask on a stick that shifts and morphs into ugliness.  The children meet him, and he shows them his distain for human life with a demonstration, by creating a world with simple clay figurines (he has the children make them), which he brings to life, only to have the miniature world wiped out by an earthquake.  The visuals are a world of simple clay figures, but the impact of the scene is powerful and heavy.  Satan here doesn’t come off as strictly evil, but as a fully realized character…who goes from cold emotion to absolute terror.  It was one of my favorite scenes in the whole film.  It comes from a time when nothing could really be deemed as too scary for kids.  The filmmakers actually had the courage to go there which is a wonderful thing.        

Tom, Huck, and Becky meet the fallen angel Satan (voiced by Wilbur Vincent)

The lightness of the film is just as engaging as the dark.  Some of the stories told are of a frog race between two old men.  Another tells a whimsical story of Adam and Eve, which is the longest story and definitely one of the films highlights.  There’s even an interesting one about a man trying to get into heaven, only to realize that his idea of heaven is not going to be the same as everyone else’s.  And of course, these stories are each a reflection of Twain as he looks back on the life he’s leaving behind.  There’s just as much for children to pick up here as there is for adults, and there’s a balance that never panders to one side or the other.  I also want to point out James Whitmore, who does a great job as the voice of Twain, giving us the empathy and revealing the emotional struggles of a man on his final journey.      

While the film keeps it light for the most part, with plenty of humor to keep it going, its that dark, emotional undertone that really holds it together, as Mark Twain prepares himself to face death.  The climax of the film is emotional and wonderful, as Twain joins with his dark side…where the two become one…as he goes off to face his destiny.  It’s a great, beautiful ending, as Tom, Huck, and Becky are meant to return to Earth and live on in the imaginations of people around the world.

This was a really great film to revisit.  I had some vague memories about the darker moments in the story, but upon watching it again, I was surprised at how much of an impact it had on me.  It also demonstrates how much things have changed in animation over the last 25 years.  Will Vinton is really the master of his craft, and the animation in this is just stunningly beautiful.  Everything about themes in this film just resonated with me.  It’s a wonderful gem of a movie, and I recommend it to everyone to go check out.

Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Huck Finn (voiced by Chris Richie, Gary Krug,
and Michele Marlana)

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