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