Monday, October 27, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Corpse Bride

"Tell me my dear... Can a heart still break after it's stopped beating?"

So we're taking a rather large leap forward in time, but in all honesty, I just don't think that any major releases between 1996's James and the Giant Peach and 2005's Corpse Bride really qualifies to be grouped into the "creepy stop-motion family movie" sub genre.  In fact, the only major stop motion release between those nine years was Chicken Run, and though Aardman's films have their dark elements, they don't really register as "something you watch around Halloween."  I don't exactly know why there was such a drought of stop-motion films for nearly a decade; maybe James underperformed and discouraged future projects, maybe the advent of computer animation stole away some of stop-motion's novelty three-dimensional effect.  Whatever the reason, Tim Burton wasn't interested.   Perhaps as an attempt to recapture the magic of Nightmare, he assembled what is now his regular crew of stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and composer Danny Elfman to create another stop-motion musical with a distinct tone that mixes the macabre with light-hearted comedy.

Let's get one thing straight--I am not discrediting the animation in Nightmare.  But wow, when you watch that film and then Corpse Bride... the difference is obvious.  With new digital photographing techniques at the animators' disposal and what appear to be major leaps forward in the technology for stop-motion puppetry, Corpse Bride looks absolutely magnificent.  The characters move so fluidly and the range of emotions they express is lightyears beyond what could previously be done.  Even though the Laika studio has made even more innovations in stop-motion as far as facial expressions and set detail, certain elements of Corpse Bride (movement of clothing, for instance) set a standard that holds up to this day.

The story is based on a Russian folktale, and while I don't know the details of the original story, the film version takes place in a European village during Victorian times that is decidedly not in Russia.  Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson) are two young, sweet-natured people who have overbearing and extreme parents (in a genius bit of character design, Victor's mother is portly while his father is stick-thin, while Victoria's are just the opposite).  Their parents have arranged a marriage between the two of them, which in most fairy tale movies would mean one of them would be detestable (or if it were a bad rom-com, they'd bicker endlessly), but both of them are likable, shy people who actually might be able to make a relationship work.  When Victor wanders off into the woods to practice his wedding vows, he places the ring on what he thinks is a root; what he's actually done is place it one the finger of a bride-to-be who was murdered there years ago, and now her soul has been awakened by Victor's marriage proposal.  The corpse's name is Emily (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter... have you won Tim Burton bingo yet?), and she takes him down to the depths of the Land of the Dead.  Here, souls from years past are in great spirits, getting drunk at the bars and having more fun than they ever did when they were alive.

The story chugs along at a good pace, with Victor's plunge into the Land of the Dead mostly played for laughs and hardly ever for scares (though Emily's resurrection scene is legitimately creepy).  Truth be told, the world of the living is a much more unsettling place, with exaggerated character designs, colorless set pieces and an overall air of unpleasantness.  That's not a flaw; it's exactly the feeling Burton and co-director Mike Johnson seem to be going for.  It makes the contrast to the Land of the Dead stuff even more fun, and when you experience that burst of color and energy, it's a welcome breath of fresh air.  The designs for the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are well done, even if they aren't quite as memorable as anything in Nightmare.  And of course, there's the villain; Lord Barkis Bittern (voiced by Richard E. Grant), the con-artist who murdered Emily and is now after Victoria for her dowery, unaware that she and her family are flat broke and are only marrying to ensure their own existence.  He has a great voice and a menacing laugh, and while he doesn't have much depth, he does have personality to spare.

The main characters are very likable, and the comically dark nature of the parents give way to some of the funniest parts of the movie.  While there's wit to be found, there are also a lot of puns.  If you have a low tolerance for puns, you may find yourself cringing more often than not during Corpse Bride ("Dead end!" "Play dead!" "I'm the head waiter!")  Jokes that work more effectively are visual jokes, such as the "Harryhousen" piano that Victor plays or a skeleton's jaw literally dropping off in astonishment.  It nonetheless remains charming, and the story is so economically told that you never feel like a joke is dragging on or a story beat is lingering aimlessly; given that stop-motion is so time-intensive, it only makes sense to strip your story down to the bare essentials, and that's exactly what Burton and Johnson have done here.  I often find myself wishing the movie was longer, just so I can spend some more time with the characters, and that's definitely a good sign.

The songs by Danny Elfman are good, but nothing hit me as hard as the songs in Nightmare. First off, Corpse Bride has less than half the number of songs, and secondly, the songs are worked into the story very leisurely rather than existing because they need to.  It just doesn't feel like a musical most of the time.  I think most will agree that the best song, and probably the best scene in the movie, is the "Remains of the Day" number.  It's a jazzy, bombastic number that sports beautiful, playful animation and moves the story forward.  It's no surprise that Danny Elfman provides the voice for Bonejangles, the skeleton who sings it.  There's also gotta be some kind of intentional homage to Disney's classic short The Skeleton Dance somewhere in there.  I only wish the rest of the songs had this manic energy, or at least that there were more songs to enjoy (a duet for Victor and Victoria, maybe?).  I will say that the score is outstanding, and the piano piece that Victor plays is gorgeous.  Emily's entrance music is haunting (as is her "dancing in the moonlight" scene, both for different reasons).  Elfman pours tons of emotion into the orchestration, complimenting the stylish visuals with a giddily creepy atmosphere.

What else is there to say? Corpse Bride is light on its feet, featuring genre-defining animation, likable characters, great music, and lots of heart.  As a spiritual successor to The Nightmare Before Christmas, it may be lacking, but that's admittedly a tough act to follow.  Tightly-wound as it is, I would have liked to see more interaction scenes between the three main characters, but what we have is pretty solid nonetheless.  The visual humor is fantastic, the voice work is top-notch, and there's creepiness to spare without there ever being any unpleasant grotesqueries.  If this had been the pinnacle of the stop-motion industry, that might have been fine, but I'm oh-so-glad Laika stepped up to the plate to work their magic just a few years later.

Creepiness score: 6 eyes in me soup out of 10.

Movie score: 8/10

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: James and the Giant Peach

"Marvelous things will happen..."

Director Henry Selick proved he had a knack for stop-motion directing after the hugely acclaimed (and groundbreaking) The Nightmare Before Christmas, so it's no surprise that Disney was interested in pursuing another film with a similar aesthetic.  Based on the book by Ronald Dahl (the phenomenal children's author of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Matilda"), James and the Giant Peach proved that the combination of Selick as director, Tim Burton as producer, and Disney as marketer was one hell of a team.  Are the results quite as good? Well, not exactly.

"Damn, still not far away enough. I can still see my house from here!"

Personal backstory time: I saw this movie for the first time when I was only five years old, and I can still remember sitting there in the theater in amazement.  I was so engrossed in the characters, the visuals, and the story.  It became one of my favorite movies to watch nonstop on VHS for years, so warm and fuzzy feelings are inevitable while trying to view this thing as a twenty-four-year-old.  But view it I did, and it's hard as it was to admit, I couldn't get as wrapped up in the adventure as I can with other Ronald Dahl adaptations.

"Try looking at it another way..."

In the nondescript 1930s, James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) is a young British boy living with his parents in a cozy cottage matte painting by the sea. Until one day, and I'm quoting the narrater here,
an angry rhinoceros appeared out of nowhere and gobbled up his poor mother and father.  You know, offscreen.  We jump ahead to a short time later where he lives with his two aunts, Spiker (Miriam Margoyles) and Sponge (Joanna Lumley).  They are the most vile, despicable people on the face of the earth, which is pretty bad luck for James.  He's forced to work work work work work for them all day with hardly any food and no social time.  I don't think he even goes to school.

James and the Giant Bitches...

Anyway, one day while James is saving the life of a spider from his wicked aunts, a strange old man (Peter Postlethwaite) gives him a bag full of magical "crocodile tongues."  He tells James that these glowing green macaroni worms are the key to making marvelous things happen, and not to let them escape.  However, seconds later, James trips and the tongues run free, working their magic on the insects and peach tree in his aunt's yard.  Before his very eyes, the peach grows to the size of a house, and after befriending the now giant-sized bugs that reside inside it, James uses the peach to go on an adventure to New York City and escape his horrible life.

"That's the life for me..."

James and the Giant Peach is mostly a whimsical movie, but there remains an underlying darkness that keeps the film interesting even if the end product isn't necessarily cohesive.  What helps keep the film afloat is the colorful array of characters present in the form of the giant-sized stop-motion bugs.  The Centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss) is a Brooklynite who... wait Richard Dreyfuss? Really? That's pretty awesome.  The Centipede likes to talk big but doesn't always have the experience to back it all up, and for being the only supporting character with any character growth, he's probably my favorite of the bunch.  Also along for the ride is the sophisticated Grasshopper (Simon Callow), the motherly Miss Ladybug (Jane Levees), the cool, calm, and French black widow Miss Spider voiced by Susan Sarandon (wow, I never knew this cast was so star-studded!), the neurotic Earthworm (David Thewlis), and the old and deaf Glowworm (Miriam Margoyles again).

"Bright lights... Big city..."

When I talk about darkness, I'm talking about over-the-top cartoonish darkness, mainly in the form of James' aunts.  They're positively evil from their design to their dialogue, making James' suffering less realistic and probably more suitable for the target audience.  I just can't help but feel that Matilda, and later Harry Potter, were able to find the right tone to find for their abusive guardian stories in their film adaptations.  While we do see that life with his aunts is torturous (come on... you've gotta feel bad for him when he's eating those chips like they're the greatest thing he's ever had), but the aunts are caricatures without an ounce of subtlety.  The actresses are perfect for the roles though, and I still get a chuckle out of a few of their lines.  The scenes of the rhino barreling through the clouds and lightning produces the film's scariest imagery, and it's quite a beautiful thing to see in motion.

"They never did catch that rhino..."

James and the Giant Peach utilizes a Wizard of Oz-esque technique wherein the hero is whisked away to the "special world" of the film something about the filmic aesthetic changes; just like the land of Oz is a world of color compared to Dorothy's black and white world, James' world changes from live action to stop-motion when his giant peach-themed adventure begins (and his head gets really huge... I always thought that was odd...).  Like with Nightmare, the stop-motion is fantastic.  I do think it shows its age in spots (those are some stiff seagulls), but other times it's so seamless I forget I'm even watching stop-motion.  I imagine the ocean water is CGI, but the way it's designed and moves works seamlessly with the puppet animation.  I was particularly impressed with an underwater scene, even if the context didn't make much sense and one of the skeletons on a sunken pirate ship is a very lazily redressed Jack Skellington model.

I don't know nothin' about no skellingtons...

The story really is the weakest part of the film, at least from my jaded, adult perspective.  The plot just meanders too much; the characters interact, they fight off a random-ass giant mechanical shark, then they're hungry, so they start eating their ship (which has no consequences), then they need a compass so they get it from zombie pirates, then they sing about how much they love each other, then they're in New York...  there's no tension escalation.  Did it need to be more complex? Not at all.  But there needed to be a bit more context for the things that happen to them.  For instance, where did the giant, mechanical shark come from? And what is it doing? Did Spiker and Sponge drive all the way from Britain to New York underwater?  What's the story behind that?  And a rhino ate his parents.  A rhino in the clouds. That's really all we need to know?  In the book, it was a crazed rhino that escaped from the zoo that killed his parents.  It still doesn't make sense, but at least we have a bit more to work with.

Gettin' peach-wasted...

It doesn't help that Randy Newman's songs aren't particularly good.  They all work in their moments (especially during the "everyone eats the peach" song), but they are awfully saccharine.  They're very sweet-natured, and believe me when I tell you that I like to see a non-cynical kids' movie especially in today's world.  But man, "My Name is James" is a chore to get through, with its forgettable tune and insipid lyrics.  This is supposed to be the movie's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and it falls flat on its face.  I really like Newman's songs in Toy Story and Princess and the Frog, so I'm not really sure what happened here.  At least the score is nice to listen to, even if it doesn't exactly stay with you.

"We're family..."

You have to use a lot of kid logic to enjoy James and the Giant Peach, and you have to get into the whole "wish fulfillment by getting back at my evil guardians!" thing as well.  Even if you can't get into the story, and want every song to end as soon as it begins, the film has tons of charm and darkness to entertain and excite you.  And kids? This is a perfect movie for them.  They'll be drawn in by the characters, the visuals, and the offbeat adventure (not to mention they'll be rolling at some of the jokes).  It has a good message about conquering your fears head on, and standing up for yourself to people who are trying to keep you down in your place.  James isn't a complex character, but he exists more as an avatar for the young audience (and despite Paul Terry's odd inability to pronounce the letter "R," his performance is pretty good).  Watching the film at my age brings back so many memories... I couldn't believe how well I remembered the dialogue and songs, bland as they are.  It's a charming little movie that had a bit more potential than it delivers, but still entertains and even impresses on a technical level.

Creepiness score: 6 scary-as-hell spiderweb beds out of 10.

Movie score: 6/10

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: The Nightmare Before Christmas

"I am the shadow on the moon at night... "

The Disney Renaissance produced some of the greatest animated movies of all time.  From 1989's The Little Mermaid to 1999's Tarzan, Disney produced hit after hit and pushed animation's potential further and further every year.  Before this new golden age, however, a quirky animator named Tim Burton worked at Disney and made a stop-motion short film called Vincent.  It was a dark and atmospheric film, combining German Expressionism with a unique macabre gloominess that cemented what would become Burton's trademark style.  Disney was impressed with Vincent enough to consider letting Burton direct another project he had in mind, The Nightmare Before Christmas, a strange mixture of Halloween and Christmas themes that would recall the Rankin-Bass television specials from the '60s and '70s that Burton grew up with.  After leaving the studio in '84 to make the hugely successful Beetlejuice and Batman, Burton decided to go back to his pet project (for which Disney still owned the rights) and make it into a feature film.

But this was Disney's highest point in decades; it might have been a gamble to release a film with such radically different animation and a creepy tone that was pretty far removed from anything else the studio ever produced on a feature-length level.   Apparently produced as a "technical achievement showcase" in the wake of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film would be the most technically accomplished stop-motion film released up to that point, and today it holds up remarkably well.  Nightmare was definitely a hit when it was released, but the cult following the film has built throughout the years has helped it become a classic in many respects.  It's Christmas, Halloween, animation, musical... all different genres working together in equal parts to deliver an engrossing and(forgive my corniness), magical experience.  While the film was directed masterfully by Henry Selick, Tim Burton's visionary stamp is all over Nightmare in all the best ways.  And the score by Danny Elfman? We'll get to that.

We start with a magnificent opening; the camera circles around trees in a wooded area that each seem to represent a different holiday.  As we listen to Patrick Stewart narrate, we are plunged into the Halloween-themed tree's door.  Here we are treated to Elfman's first song "This is Halloween."  This wildly fun tour throughout Halloween Town is fast-paced and creepier than you'd expect from a Disney movie, then or now.  This seems to be the moment when the movie says, "Ok, kids.  You either like this stuff or you're shitting your pants right now.  Either way, I hope you're entertained."  The sequence doesn't feature anything too gory or disturbing, but it pushes the limits of being family friendly just enough to give it some shock value.  On one hand, the characters are clearly cartoonish and the song emits a mood of spooky fun rather than genuine horror. But the atmosphere is still very dark and the eeriness of the stop-motion visuals can be rather haunting, and that is what makes the opening, and the film as a whole, so memorable.  Plus the designs of the monsters and the way they move are just fantastic.

Toward the end of the opening, we are introduced to Jack "The Pumpkin King" Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, but with singing voice provided by Danny Elfman himself).  He's feeling tired of living in Halloween Town, with the constant scaring, grotesqueries, and gloomy atmosphere.  When I was a kid, I misinterpreted Jack's depression here; I thought he was coming to the realization that what he was doing was wrong or immoral, but the truth is he's just bored of it all.  This leads to one of the most iconic shots in the film, which depicts Jack walking down a gigantic spiral root in front of a glowing yellow moon... it's all just so gorgeous.  And working in time with the song, "Jack's Lament," it's just too much visual splendor to take in.

When Jack discovers the holiday portals, he ventures into Christmas Town, which is just about as polar opposite to Halloween Town as can be.  As Jack discovers these things so unfamiliar to him (snow, presents, joy, etc.,),  he sings "What's This?" which just about takes the top spot for best song in the film for me.  The lyrics are witty and the score is energetic; the world of Christmas is just as well-realized as Halloween, and as much as they contrast, you somehow don't feel as though you've stepped into an entirely different movie altogether.  The visual style and level of creativity remains at an extremely high caliber.

I really could sit here and gush about every scene in the movie this way, but I think you get the point.  The characters are all fabulously well-realized, both in terms of how they're designed and how they are written.  I can't say that every character is three dimensional.  Oogie Boogie (voiced by Ken Page) has nothing going for him except that he's the film's (frankly unnecessary but still incredibly fun) Big Bad villain.   Jack and Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Harra) are charming as all hell, and I can't say a blessed thing wrong about them.  Jack Skellington has an impossible character model; with stick-thin limbs and no eyeballs for expression, his ability to move and project emotion thankfully knows no bounds.  He has such a lovable, over-the-top personality that grabs you from the very beginning.  Sally probably has the most depth; she is a mad scientist's creation who exists to serve him in ways that I hope only include making him soup and cleaning the castle.  Nevertheless, this leaf-stuffed rag doll wants out, and she spends much of the film trying to escape her creator and become closer with Jack, whom she admires and ultimately loves.  Sally is probably the most endearing character, and her bluesy, somber song simply titled, "Sally's Song," is cited by Elfman as the best song in the film.  It's hard to argue with him.

The film is about trying new things and self-discovery.  At a glance, the theme seems to be, "You are born to do what you do.  Trying to be something you're not might be fun, but will only end in disaster."  But maybe that's taking the story too literally; maybe there was a way Jack could have gone about creating his own version of Christmas in a less materialistic fashion.  A possible interpretation of the message, as I see it, is that the holidays we celebrate don't exist in the decorations (Christmas trees, Jack-O-Lanterns), but in the feeling.  It's pretty much a carbon copy of the message from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but whereas that story's message is obviously about materialism, it takes a bit of digging to spot it in Nightmare.

While the animation is incredible, the art design is impeccably crafted, and the characters are charming and lovable,  what really pushes Nightmare from being good to GREAT is the musical score and songs.  Danny Elfman is at his absolute best here, producing what he called "one of the easiest jobs he ever had," and in a way it makes sense.  There's no push for Broadway-style showstoppers the way the Renaissance films incorporated them; instead, the songs' format follows that of an opera (where much of what might have been dialogue is sung instead).  The best songs are phenomenally catchy and memorable, always serving the story and adding tons of fun to the experience.  I could listen to this soundtrack all season long (pick one).

There's so much more I'd love to praise the film for, but it really speaks for itself.  Some claim that the love story is underdeveloped and that the plot becomes predictable by the third act, but I feel this can't even begin to take away from the beauty of the rest of the film.  There's no doubt that the film's magic would have suffered had it been animated in anything but stop motion, or had Disney pulled punches with the darkness and tried to make it more kid-friendly.  It may not reach the insane creepiness of The Adventures of Mark Twain, but to be fair, no amount of Halloween spookiness could ever compete with an angel named Satan.  The film is undeniably fun and though this wouldn't be Tim Burton's last foray into the world of stop-motion, it's probably the very best in the sub genre overall.

Creepiness Score:  7 clowns with tear-away faces out of 10.

Movie Score: 10/10

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: The Adventures of Mark Twain

"The man with an idea is a fool, until that idea succeeds."

There are kids' movies and then there are 80s kids' movies.  You'll find few other decades that produced so many films that appear to be made for children from their posters or their content at a quick glance ("It's animated? Must be for kids! Enjoy Watership Down, Billy!"), but often contain no shortage of violence, death, and nightmare-inducing images.  In other words, I love 80s kids' movies.  They're typically flawed when it comes to their stories (The Black Cauldron) or their characters (The Dark Crystal), but when they're good, they're good (The Secret of Nimh, The NeverEnding Story).  The near absence of CGI in this decade only helps to accentuate some of the creepiness factor of 80s kids' films as special effects were accomplished by puppetry, animatronics, stop-motion, and things that are just really there. 

"A harp, a hymn book and wings? Good god, what a swindle.  I'm led to consider a different path. Heaven for climate, Hell for company."

Since I love Halloween so much, and in honor of the release of The Boxtrolls this week, I want to devote some time to talking about the animated medium which has produced some of the creepiest films you'll ever see; stop-motion. I'll only be reviewing films that lean toward the horror genre, so this won't be the time to talk about Chicken Run (sorry). The process of animating what are essentially highly sophisticated toys one frame, often at 24 frames per second, is incredibly laborious, but the results are often stunning.  With its eerily jerky movement, often gorgeously designed miniatures and puppets, and satisfaction it offers (given that the cartoons you are watching really do exist in three dimensions) stop-motion films have a certain charm that's impossible to replicate with CGI (let's just pretend that The Lego Movie doesn't exist for a hot sec, okay?).

"Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody, if he can help it."

Let's get started with the first full-length film to be produced using clay animation: The Adventures of Mark Twain.  The story is very simple, and a plot barely exists, but good god, this is one hell of a movie.  Stop-motion is time-intensive enough as it is with puppets and miniatures props made out of sturdy material. But clay? I can hardly believe it's possible to make something that looks as good as Mark Twain, and frankly, there's never been a clay animated movie since that can top it in terms of its creativity.  It works better as a reference machine to Mark Twain's work, life, and beliefs more than it does as a movie, so I'll try not to make it out to be some kind of masterpiece of storytelling from beginning to end.

"There's no sadder sight than a young pessimist. Except an old optimist."

In fact, the first time I saw this, I didn't really care for it much throughout the course of the first half.  Mark Twain has built an airship to take him to see Halley's Comet when a few of his written characters from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stow away on the ship and must follow him on his adventure.  What Twain actually says is he has an "appointment" with the comet, and what he means by that is he wants to collide with it and commit suicide.  Okay, let's back up.  In real life, (and I'm referencing the film's opening text crawl), Mark Twain wrote that his destiny was linked to Halley's Comet.  It comes once every seventy-five years, and interestingly enough, Twain was born on a year it came and died one day after it came again.  This movie takes that idea that Twain has to die with this comet and makes it literal, all while pretending to be a happy, harmless children's film with a magical, space-cruising airship.

"She says things are not right. The buzzard, for instance. She says it was intended to live on decayed flesh. But we cannot overturn the whole scheme to accommodate the buzzard."

The first vignettes of the film (for Twain's story is really just a base for short animated segments peppered throughout) is based on Twain's first published story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."  It's cute and harmless and makes you feel like you're watching a Nick Jr. show.  The next segment is the quirky "Diaries of Adam and Eve" taken from Twain's "Letter's From Earth."  Once again, it's cute and harmless, the animation is gorgeous, and the subtext is witty.  But this is still firmly in the realm of kiddie fare.

"Life itself is only a vision. A dream. Nothing exists, save empty space and you. 
And you... are but a thought."

And then out of fucking nowhere we get "The Mysterious Stranger," one of the coolest, creepiest, and unsettling scenes I've experienced in any film.  The stow-aways, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher, discover a door that can transport them to various Twain works, one of them being "The Mysterious Stranger."  There, atop an island floating in the middle of nothingness, they meet an angel named Satan.  Satan, who's design consists of a headless body using an ever-changing face mask to speak in the eeriest voice possible, demonstrates for the children the worthlessness of the lives of everyday mortals.   I could describe the scene in more detail, but it's much more effective to just watch the thing.  Sometimes I'm glad I'm a child of the 90s.  This segment disturbs me as an adult; I can't imagine what kind of hellish crying the five-year-old version of me would have done had he seen this.

"I find you humans quite interesting, even though you are a worthless, greedy lot."

From here on out, the movie is consistently creepy, thought-provoking, and patched with so many witty and weighty quotes from Mark Twain's work that it's tempting to only recommend watching the film from the middle onward.  You can't do that of course, not only because the first half's innocence gives the darker second half some added shock value, but because there's an incredibly touching ending segment for the "Adam and Eve" story that either evokes a tear out of you or you just don't know the feeling of losing a loved one.   Speaking of which, the second half seems to have a death as a strong running theme; how living people deal with death, how dead people deal with death, and Mark Twain's personal take on death and organized religion.

"The human race, in all its poverty, has only one truly effective weapon: laughter.  
Against the assault of laughter - ha-ha-ha-ha! - nothing can stand."

The voice work by the majority of the cast is pretty stilted, but there is nothing but sheer perfection in James Whitmore's performance as Mark Twain.  He sounds so sure about everything he says; his direct quotes carry a lot of weight, and he finds a perfect balance between humor, sadness, and tiredness.  You accept this Einstein-looking clay toy is the real Mark Twain, and through his dialogue you believe that he's a man who's lived his life and is ready to meet his destiny.

"I will continue on doing my duty, but when I get to the other side, I will use my considerable influence to have the human race drowned again, this time drowned good. No omissions. No ark."

Director Will Vinton, who had extensive experience in clay animation, directs an absolutely gorgeous movie.  The imagination on display for creating the different worlds is really breathtaking, and even though audiences of today are used to hyper-fast editing, busy animation, and constant noise, I think it holds up remarkably well.  The musical score is nothing spectacular, but it's charming, odd, and fits the film's aesthetic.  Between the fantastic Twain quotes, the disturbing imagery, the messages about death, and the beautiful animation, The Adventures of Mark Twain is a well-hidden treasure.  It's not necessarily a great movie on every level, but it's definitely a fun one.

If nothing else, just watch that "Mysterious Stranger" segment for the HOLY-SHIT-THIS-IN-IN-A-KIDS'-MOVIE factor.

Creepiness rating: 10 angels named Satan out of 10.

Movie rating: 7/10