Ah, the '80s, when every other non-Disney movie was still some animator's Grimm nightmare that would plunge children into a depressive dread. From that proud tradition comes The Adventures of Mark Twain, a claymation movie that mixes the literary whimsy of Mark Twain with the realistic bleakness of Mark Twain.
Created by clay animator extraordinaire Will Venton, The Adventures of Mark Twain sees Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher meet their actual maker as they adventure together on Twain's interdimensional dirigible. During the journey, the kids are witness to an anthology of Twain's lesser-known short stories, from the mustache-heavy The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County to the tank topped tales of Eden's first couple in The Private Life of Adam and Eve.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Mark Twain story without some unavoidably historically accurate racism. Halfway through the movie, Injun Joe makes a cameo, looking like every Confederate soldier's nightmare of what Indigenous people look like ...
Luckily, since this is a movie from the '80s, NotGonnaSayThatWord Jim is left completely out of the story. To compensate for that, Vinton gives the Garden of Eden snake the Reagan-era "urban" treatment, turning him from a serpentine seducer into a matchstick chewing, sunglasses-wearing, slick-talking hustler.
Mild datedness aside, what is brand new is the movie's main plot: Twain's Ahab-like chasing down of Halley's Comet with his space-whaling ship. Why does Twain want to reach Halley's Comet? To die, of course. The historical Twain was born at the time of Halley's Comet's passing in and died the very next time the celestial snowball passed Earth in (The movie was even held back from release until 1986 to coincide with the next flyby of the comet). The movie's opening Star Wars crawl quotes Twain saying: "The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'"
If that seems bleak for a G-rated kid's movie, that's because the first half of The Adventures of Mark Twain exists to lure you into a false sense of security. After Huck, Tom, and Becky meet Mark Twain, they encounter the story's true antagonist: Dark Twain, the dark-suited, morose counterpart to the adventure-loving protagonist.
This cynical, aggressively atheist Twain takes the kids on a magic elevator ride that's equal parts Star Trek holodeck and the monster elevator from Cabin in the Woods. Their first stop: a sweet little angel called Satan. Based on Twain's unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Huck and the gang meet a disembodied suit of armor with a theatrical mask that is, in fact, a descendant of The Devil but claims to be the most innocent being in the universe.
They ask the kids to make people out of clay (how meta), so they can bring them to life and play with them. But when their little Medieval doll society becomes too much like a "we live in a society," the annoyed Satan goes Old Testament on the clay homunculi in a terrifying scene of terrifying claymation genocide. The kids flee in terror, leaving Satan behind to turn to the camera, looking in the eyes of their other young audience to whisper: "Life itself is only a vision. A dream. Nothing exists; save empty space and you. And you... are but a thought."
While concluding his storytelling (which includes a chat with Captain Stormfield from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven and his detour to an alien gangbang), the ship finally reaches Halley's Comet. The manic and depressive sides of Twain confront each other, merging together to reveal his final form, Bipolar Twain, who is at peace with the prospect of his death. He hands his intergalactic vessel to the three Victorian children to crash somewhere on Jupiter and is absorbed into the comet's clouds, pulling a Mufasa eight years before The Lion King did it and bidding his creations farewell as a massive head in the clouds.
While The Adventures of Mark Twain tanked during its theatrical run, the blame can hardly be laid at its feet of clay. The movie's (by then bankrupt) distributor insisted on giving it a G-rating and marketing it as a whimsical kids' movie to appeal to the broadest market possible. In truth, The Adventures of Mark Twain is as much a family feature as it is a psychologically complex meta-meta narrative about a conflicted artist who experienced great suffering and brought great joy who has to come to terms with dying and the nothingness of an uncaring universe -- which just happens to be in claymation. Between the gorgeous special effects and Twain's excellent storytelling, The Adventures of Mark Twain is a great yet challenging watch. For those interested, it's currently available on YouTube for free! Just make sure to watch it after you've done a lot of therapy and self-reflection -- not because of it.
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Top Image: Clubhouse Pictures