In 1985, I was born. So were all of these films. Let’s watch them.

the adventures of mark twainThe Adventures of Mark Twain (dir. Will Vinton) 86 min

Release Date: March 1, 1985

Cast: James Whitmore, Michele Mariana, Gary Krug

Writer(s): Susan Shadburne, Mark Twain

Synopsis: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher stow away on Mark Twain’s airship, which has set a course to meet Halley’s Comet.

Review: Yesterday’s entry got more personal than I would’ve liked (even if I didn’t have the time to dig deeper), so I’m going to keep this aspect of the review brief: I thought I was way cooler than I actually am. You see, The Adventures of Mark Twain opens with a bit of text about Halley’s Comet appearing in 1835, the year Mark Twain was born and once again in 1910, the year he died. The movie and its 1985 release are predicated on the idea that Halley’s Comet would be back again, on schedule for its 75-year cycle. That’s a nice thought, but Halley’s Comet didn’t reappear until 1986, ruining any notions I might have had about my connection to the cosmos (or Mark Twain at the very least). Whatever, cosmos.

This is a contemplative, uneven, but often beautifully rendered children’s film about Mark Twain’s suicide cruise to meet Halley’s Comet. Twain’s creations Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher all stow away on a dirigible craft that drifts through painterly, Van Gough skies and further still into the stars. Along the way, Twain runs through his selected works, spending the most time of his Diaries of Adam and Eve, a story that tries to imagine how the first humans to experience anything might have dealt with knowledge, birth and loss. Later, a depressive double of Twain (with bags under his eyes!) introduces Tom, Huck and Becky to Satan, a fallen angel with an amorphous face who says, “life itself is only a vision, a dream. Nothing exists, save empty space and you. And you are but a thought.” This is the animated film Alvie Singer never knew he needed.

The animation ranges from exceptionally well detailed, to totally crude (sometimes by design) and there’s a boldness to how liquid this world is. Like Satan’s ever-changing face, the movie opens with the melting walls of a library giving way to the world of Tom and Huck. That library exists within Twain’s flying machine—the same flying machine Tom and Huck are about to break into—suggesting a dream-within-a-dream narrative that also feels free to dive back into that library and pull out other stories as needed. Were the rest of the film not so interested in the concept of humanity as a thought, I might be able to write this off as a sloppy framing device, but it’s undeniably something more than that.

Will Vinton’s animation studio was behind the California Raisins and like those lumpy, dancing wads of good digestive health, all of his characters walk a line between hand-made and technically impressive. There are no fingerprints rippling through the skin of any of these characters, but they all look like they could’ve been sculpted with Play-Doh straight out of the tub. And the characters aren’t walking through dioramas made out of a different material, either. Everything is clay, so the artists behind this had to work as character and set designers, creating a cohesive world while stile respecting small details, like the hard line of a banister. Simply put, the characters are cartoony, but the world mostly isn’t.

This wasn’t on rotation in my house when I was a kid, but I wish it would have been. There’s no way I would have picked up on the cruel, ambivalent philosophy of Satan as a kid, but there’s no reason to shield your kids from this stuff either. If you’re a lit nerd hoping to raise some dorky babies, this is a nice primer to the world of Mark Twain AND trippy adult animation with the edges smoothed down (but only just).

Better Off Dead or The Sure Thing: The sure thing

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