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Pygmalion's Clemens:
Mark Twain Has the Lead in Will Vinton's Claymation Feature

Reviewed by Dave Thomson

Will Vinton's fantasy feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, employs a unique form of animation. "Claymation" is the Pygmalion myth realized: sculpture convincingly brought to life.

The opening scene of the picture is a magical tour de force demonstrating Claymation's extraordinary use of transformation. A book on Twain's roll-top desk opens and the Mississippi River gushes from its pages. As the flood subsides, everything on the desk is transformed. A pen becomes a diving fish, the inkwell a tree stump, a watch turns into a snapping turtle and the books melt into the roots of trees on the riverbank. The camera pans past the broken sternwheel from a steamboat wreck and reveals Tom and Huck on their raft, fishing.

The boys then join Becky Thatcher in St. Louis, where Mark Twain (circa 1910) is announcing his intention to rendezvous with Halley's Comet via a fanciful flying machine which is a hybrid of a Jules Verne dirigible and a river boat, with smokestacks and paddlewheel.

Tom, Huck and Becky stow away aboard this craft (derived from Tom Sawyer Abroad) and are welcomed by Twain as crew members. During their flight Twain regales the youngsters with stories which are presented as fully animated sequences. The Jumping Frog, Diaries of Adam and Eve, and Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven are executed with a broad, caricatured realism that fits the hyperbole of Twain's narratives. It is apparent that the ship itself is literally an airborne embodiment of Twain's mind and imagination as well as the archive for everything he ever wrote.

While traversing the craft the kids discover that the elevator on board not only takes them to different decks, but will also transport them to chapters from Twain's books. At one point the doors open to reveal McDougal's Cave from Tom Sawyer and a monstrous Injun Joe confronts them for a terrifying moment. Another "floor" introduces The Mysterious Stranger. Here, Satan teaches them to sculpt crude little clay people which he then endows with life and later destroys. This episode alone justified the use of Claymation and felt almost like an inside joke about how the film was made.

A shadowy saboteur is glimpsed aboard, menacing the navigation of the craft. This character is revealed to be none other than Twain's own alter ego. This disillusioned, bitterly sardonic old Twain personifies Captain Nemo as he plays a pipe organ which sobs out anguished spirituals.

After surviving a fearsome storm, the craft overtakes and actually enters Halley's Comet where the two Twains merge and then undergo a mystical fusion with the comet itself.

There are a very few objections to make. Adam and Eve wear Mack Sennett bathing suits, so when it's time for them to feel guilty about their "nakedness," it doesn't make any sense. The snake in the Garden of Eden is a smart-aleck contemporary hipster. Cain becomes a full-blown Hell's Angel. These and the rock music in Stormfield's "alien heaven" seem anachronistic, given the 1910 setting of this fantasy.

The film is really aimed at a mature audience, not a juvenile one. Screenwriter Susan Shadburne (who is also Mrs. Will Vinton) did an admirable job of incorporating scenes from diverse Twain short stories and novels. She also gave actor James Whitmore (excellent as the voice of Twain), all the "best lines" -- witticisms and profundities from Twain's repertoire.

Hugh Kennedy Tirrell, who acted as Executive Producer on this film, deserves special credit as the man who first suggested Mark Twain to Producer/Director Will Vinton as an appropriate subject for a Claymation enterprise.

The Art Direction was brilliantly achieved by Barry Bruce (character design), Joan C. Gratz and Don Merkt (set design). The magical Claymation was executed by William L. Fiesterman, Tom Gasek, Mark Gustafson, Craig Bartlett and Bruce McKean. The film was beautifully scored by Billy Scream

The Adventures of Mark Twain transcends mere entertainment to become a really thoughtful portrait of an artist and his unique perspective on life and experience. We are shown Twain's compassion and his misanthropy. We are taken on a journey laced with Twain's favorite ingredients: hilarity, terror and poignancy.

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