The Adventures of Mark Twain: Who was this Made For?

“Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

– Eve’s Diary

I’ve discovered, over the course of years, that my childhood canon is not the same as most of my friends. They grew up with animated Disney, I had Tron and The Black Hole. They had Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, I had Tom Swift Jr. They had Animaniacs, I had The Tomorrow People and various weird sci-fi imports from Australia for some reason. They had Bananas in Pajamas and I had In Search of the Wow Wow Wibble Woggle Wazzie Woodle Woo. So sometimes our childhood favorites run close parallels, and other times they wildly diverge. But every year around the holidays, Will Vinton comes up.

In most cases, people know of his work as the director of the claymation California Raisins specials. A smaller number know him from the holiday specials he did, and a subset of those people know his work from the Dinosaurs special (not to be confused with the Gary Owens and Eric Boardman Dinosaurs programs featuring claymation work from the Chiodo Brothers). But I grew up with something far stranger: The Adventures of Mark Twain.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is a weird movie from 1986 that has an overarching narrative of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher traveling with Mark Twain in an airship to meet with Halley’s comet. According to online trivia, this may be the first feature-length claymation movie. Within their adventure we see excerpts from Mark Twain stories. Other than the obvious choices like scenes from Tom Sawyer, there are really interesting and, for a kid’s movie, bizarre choices for source material. I distinctly remember The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, but this movie is also what introduced my to my favorite work by Twain, The Diaries of Adam and Eve.

Satan's Island
Satan’s Island

Revisiting this, I have to say it’s astounding how well it holds up. Not only that, but there are also some really deep Mark Twain cuts that I did not pick up on as a child. The whole time Tom, Huck, and Becky are creeping around the airship, there’s a mysterious stranger who shows up now and again. Having a more in depth knowledge of Twain and his body of work than I did when I was six, I know recognize the mysterious stranger as The Mysterious Stranger, Twain’s final and unfinished work about Satan and the human condition. Not only that, but the Stranger’s home is portrayed as an unfinished island, much like the story that character inhabits. Putting that together as an adult tickled me to no end.

What surprises me the most is how much I liked it as a child. There’s a good bit in here that I could imagine being too slow for a kid’s movie. Or too terrifying. And absolutely too confusing. Most kid’s movies are made mostly for kids, but with enough for adults to keep them entertained, or at least prevent them from hating the movie. The ratio on The Adventures of Mark Twain almost seem flipped, with the majority aimed at adults, and the goofy character designs, periodic sight gags, and and flowing animation there to tide over children. And yet as a child I adored this movie, so clearly there’s some sort of ageless magic going when all these pieces come together.

Honestly, I can’t recommend this movie enough. Clearly this was tailor-made for me. It’s strange animation, features Satan in a role that’s not completely villainous, and is not only literary, but specifically about one of my favorite authors. What’s even better is you can watch it yourself. It’s currently streaming in the Internet Archives.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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