The year Mark Twain (voiced by James Whitmore) was born was a year in which Halley's Comet appeared in the skies over the Earth, and the next time it appeared was in 1910. Twain was in his seventies by this time and planned to leave the world along with the comet, so to that end he built a special airship to take him into it. Meanwhile, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were discussing adventures they wished to embark upon and Tom decided on the sky as being the best place to go. How fortunate, then, that Twain and his airship were just about to take off in the vicinity...
Claymation was devised by animator Will Vinton, but it took him a while to get around to making a whole feature based around the technique, after a run of acclaimed short films. The result was The Adventures of Mark Twain, ostensibly a method of bringing the American literary giant's work to children, but in effect enjoyed more by indulgent adults. It employs a heavily fantastical atmosphere, and in between the stories it adapts there is very little that Twain would have conjured up himself.
And yet, Vinton and his collaborators, including scriptwriter Susan Shadburne, really capture something of the personality of the tales. Not so much the humour, mind you, more the cynicism and uncompromising look at human nature. Once Tom and Huck get airborne (along with an unimpressed Becky Thatcher), Twain doesn't appear the least bit surprised and indeed welcomes them aboard with, what else, one of his own stories. It's the one about the jumping frog, expertly rendered, but at one point there's a gag that's oddly unsettling.
When the lead character in the frog tale is looking around for another amphibian to race against his champion jumper, a massive beast pokes his head up from the water, scowls and submerges once more. And that sums up the tone, it may be bright and fun on the surface, but there are dark undercurrents to the tales. In one such instance Huck, Tom and Becky get to meet Satan himself, and there's the novelty of clay characters fashioning smaller clay characters to be animated only for them to turn against each other and be destroyed by an earthquake instigated by a bitter, though powerful Satan.
There is a mysterious figure onboard the airship, but we don't find out his identity until the end although it is guessable. This merely underlines the spectre of death that looms over the characters, not so much the children who remain optimistic, but everyone else although the film reccommends we make our peace with the world before we shuffle off this mortal coil. In the spirit of invention, the Biblical story of Adam and Eve is given a modern twist, combining the Twain take on it with up to date humour which seems out of place with the rest of the film. That said, the animation remains irrefutably inspired, with the expression in the faces something to marvel at. It's just that the more outlandish aspects (including computers) don't entirely fit with Twain's world. Music by Billy Scream.