When Vinton remarks on the commentary on this disc that this was the first 100% Claymation feature film he is not exaggerating either, everything here is made from plasticine, from the characters and objects to the painted backdrops and even the water that seems to flow and ripple in certain scenes. The effect that this achieves is one that feels very much like an elaborate magic trick. With everything in the world modelled in plasticine., what at first seems like a distancing aesthetic begins to seem more and more natural as the film goes on. As a result the Claymation is not ultimately something that keeps you at arm’s length from engaging with the film but oddly immerses you even more in this strange and absorbing world.
That the world in question is one that is mostly created by Mark Twain does not hurt proceedings either and Vinton draws on all of the rich and varied creations available to him. Whilst The Adventures of Mark Twain is a fictionalised story about the character of Mark Twain (voiced by James Whitmore), peppered with a few actual facts, there are excursions throughout the film into vignettes that re-tell a number of Twain’s stories. Stories re-told include The Diaries of Adam and Eve, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and the rather disturbing The Mysterious Stranger. The wider story of the film is concerned with Mark Twain travelling on an airship to re-connect with Halley’s Comet. The comet visited earth at the same time as he was born and he believes that he will die when the comet returns. Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher (all fictional creations of the real Twain) are stowaways on this journey and they provide the audience for Twain to recount his stories to, also often stepping inside the stories.
This reasonably complex plotting is told with satisfying simplicity by Vinton and co. and the film works well as a children’s film, although it is perhaps a little dark and adult at times for younger children. The film plays well to an adult audience too and should not be assumed to be simply ‘something for kids’. The Adventures of Mark Twain is actually a little hard to classify with regards to an audience, slightly too childish in places to satisfy some adults but too upsetting at times for some children. This could well account for its disappointing returns at the box office on release. Thankfully this hasn’t buried the film completely and this new Blu-ray release is a fantastic opportunity to re-engage with this wonderful film or to experience it for the first time.
The new HD transfer presented here is superb and the print used was clearly one of very high quality. There are a few tell-tale signs of print damage and some sparkle in places but these issues are very minor. For the most part this transfer is spot on with a fine layer of grain throughout, a balanced and detailed picture and colours that look exceptionally vibrant and fresh. The new special features on the disc are varied and include a very informative commentary from Will Vinton, 54 minutes of interviews with those involved in the film, 7 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and a 17 minute documentary on Claymation. This documentary on Claymation is a real highlight and despite being a little on the short side it provides a wonderful introduction and overview of the work that Will Vinton and his collaborators have done.