Reasons why I watched this. Well, there were several, in fact. First amongst them was that the trailer for the film used to play before some of the videos I had as a little child. I’m sure there were a great many of them, but the one I remember is this one, the weird hallucinogenic claymation visuals and the iconic imagery: steamboat-airship hybrids, a drama mask that shifts and changes, faces in the clouds…And then I was just looking through lists of animated films and there was the title, staring at me. Growing more interested in steampunk made me think of the imagery from that trailer, the way Mark Twain is often listed beside Jules Verne as the big influences on the playful little niche…
And I’m glad that I decided to watch it, all these years later, because it was an excellent little piece of animation. It’s a shame that it’s fated to obscurity because of an animation style that, Aardman aside (and this doesn’t look as slick and polished as Chicken Run, that’s for sure), has become ever more unfashionable, especially in the wake of CG (admittedly, I’d love to see a Pixar-standard remake, or even a live action version), because it is remarkable in many ways. Conceivably the 1985 film would have been a bigger hit if it had designed better-looking main children, and possibly if it had pulled some punches (a scene with little Morph-like clay people having their civilisation devastated is, remarkably and for me at least, very impressively harrowing in a surprisingly genuine way). That title smacks of a studio overruling the creative team, but this film can certainly appeal to adults.
And at the heart of this is Mark Twain, and the vast majority of the brilliance in the movie is the brilliance of Twain, with plenty of quotes of some of the man’s superb one-liners. The great writer takes to the skies in his riverboat-zeppelin, while his creations Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher stow away. Along the journey, through amazing contraptions and mysterious doors, various other of Twain’s creations are seen, showcasing both his superb sense of humour, as in the witty diaries of Adam and Eve, his darker side with a few well-observed indictments of mankind, we see the man himself swinging unpredictably from wise storyteller to authoritarian brooding madman playing a great moulding and remoulding pipe organ.
Symbolic, allegorical, clever and showcasing a variety of styles, both in animation terms and storytelling terms, it’s remarkably well done. It’ll be a shame if this is forgotten.
(originally written 1.9.08)