Last month I shared one of my favorite Christmas specials, Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas. Vinton has a unique sensibility, one that isn’t afraid to treat kids like real people, giving them an unvarnished look at life, complete with humor, outrageous antics, and true sentiments. As anyone who’s re-watched any childhood favorite, you quickly realize that the creations that endure are complex and universal. The reason The Simpsons can continue to hold sway over viewers young and old is because it works on multiple levels, and is not afraid to mix childish and adult themes. Tim Burton (at his best,) Roald Dahl, and the entire line-up of Adult Swim knows this truth. Sometimes, you have to give children a strong dose of grown-up content mixed with all of the sugary fluff they are expected to consume. Sometimes the dose is a touch too strong, though…
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are lounging on their raft when they catch word that the famous writer, Mark Twain, is causing a stir by piloting an upgraded river-boat into the stratosphere, hoping to hitch a ride on Haley’s Comet. While this is enough of an event to warrant a view, Tom Sawyer is livid that his childhood friend Becky Thatcher is going to the event while he is stuck at home. He hatches a scheme to stow away aboard the air-ship in order to one-up Becky, but she spots the boys and hitches a ride as well. When they set off, they realize that this may be a one-way trip, since Twain is dead set on reaching the comet no matter what the danger to the ship and crew. Also tagging along are the many creations of Mr. Twain, giving the fictional children a guided tour of the mind and masterpieces of America’s most celebrated author.
That description sounds lovely! What could be more beneficial to a child’s education than a fun-filled romp through the classic works of Mark Twain, with a little light science-fiction thrown in? Well, I may have left out one important fact: Twain is essentially heading to Haley’s Comet to commit suicide. This is a one way trip. He’s so cynically fed up with humanity and wrecked by the loss of his wife that he’s decided to go out with a bang, colliding with the comet that appeared the year he was born. When he discovers that he’s got stow-aways, does he turn around and call off the mission? Nope. Does he drop them off at the nearest city, seeing as his plan actually requires a small lay-over in Egypt? Nope. He cusses them out for making him late for his grand exit, and presses them into service on his flying coffin.
Vinton gives Twain an out for his boorish behavior: he’s so down in the dumps, he’s actually split into two personalities, a genial good half who entertains the children with anecdotes (while still flying them to certain death!) and an evil half, which actively tries to destroy both the ship and the children. This is especially nasty, because again, both Twains are set on destruction, so using creatures from Twain’s stories to try to terrorize and kill the children is just a dick move. It’s like spending your last hour aboard the Titanic throwing rocks at the kid’s lifeboat, just to hear them cry louder. When the “good half” is blithely trying to crash a boat full of innocents into a celestial object, it hardly seems necessary to even mention that an “evil half” is on board too. What’s the difference!?
What the Hell!
At least in their last few days, the children get to experience the wonder of Mark Twain’s imagination. His sardonic, misanthropic imagination. Rather than explore the best known and loved stories, ones that you’d reasonably expect a child to be familiar with (and perhaps the ones about the three heroes on the actual ship!) we get an exploration of Twain’s lesser known writings. The main story is based on Letter’s From the Earth, a collection containing the Diary of Adam and Eve. This is not a kid friendly story. It was an intensely satirical collection, mostly concerned with human stupidity and the folly of organized religion. It starts with a subversive take on the Garden of Eden, and continues with a brief visit from Satan. Yup, Satan. In a claymation children’s story.
Satan is not some buffoonish caricature of evil, either. He’s no idiot prancing around in red pajama’s while waving a pitchfork. Instead, he approaches the children as an angel and encourages them to build a little kingdom out of clay, which he then brings to life, much to the delight of the heroes. This quickly changes as Satan, now dropping his benevolent mask, sets about murdering the little living clay dolls in monstrous manners. He gets them to fight over clay livestock, turns the clay King wicked, and then starts zapping the moaning and weeping populace with hail and lightning, all before unleashing an earthquake that swallows up the whole village, both the living and the dead. I forget how the kids escape from Satan. I’m pretty sure that was my young mind’s defense mechanisms setting in…
All’s Well That Ends Well?
After all of the horror, things settle down on the ship. Tom, Huck and Becky learn to pilot the ship and gain a measure of respect for each other and themselves. Twain finishes his story about Adam and Eve on a somber but elegant note, showing how despite a family of terrible children and the loss of their paradise, they’ve gained something greater in exchange, an enduring love for each other. Once again, there’s no sentimental fluff here, as the pair discuss how they each hope to pass away first, since living alone would be too hard. As we see Adam sitting alone at his journal, we a led to assume that his wife has indeed died first, just as Twain’s had. Realizing his loneliness, the children get Twain to confront his evil half, and when he is made whole, he allows the children to pilot the ship home, after having become a spirit which now resides on the comet. Everybody’s happy. Twain gets his big send off, the kids get to return to Earth as famous astronauts, and Tom and Becky start a budding relationship. Everyone’s all right…so long as they don’t open any of the doors on the ship that lead to either murderous imaginations or Satan, or any of the other myriad dangers Twain stocked the ship with. Can’t win them all, kids.