Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Ugly, Ugly Adventures of Mark Twain

Dominos Pizza is running another ad campaign of terror using claymation: instead of crudely embracing the form they attack innocence with bilious Family Guy levels of market tested irony and have Mom murder the corporate mascot in the kitchen. He's a rappin' claymation dude with shades - here you are rewarded with your superior taste with mean-spiritedness...no, the marketing department is congratulating themselves on their own cleverness. As products like Skittles, Burger King and this one continue using detached post-advertising hipsterisms like "The Burger King" and acoustic folk songs about candy, it becomes more apparent than ever we need an enlightenment period of sincerity and disciplined craft.

I was reminded of this because a man named Will Vinton made the last earnest attempt to create a corporate mascot for Dominoes in the form of The Noid - an eflin man in a red bunny suit who wanted to kill your pizza and resembled an elderly buck toothed dwarf. Now they spit on his grave with extreme ironic prejudice.

The ads caught on for a while, though The Noid is really hideously unappealing from a design standpoint. I'm willing to bet TV viewers were merely taken by the application of stop-motion, or as it's trademarked in The Adventures of Mark Twain, Claymation(R).

Will Vinton's Claymation(R) also created the beloved 80s corporate shills, The California Raisins. In other words, his trademark is creating lumpy people with disproportionately huge heads, a disturbing amount of facial details, and in The Adventures of Mark Twain's case the inability to move ones legs.

For a far more appealing application of such animation, even the genteel Rankin-Bass productions knew how they'd have the most leeway animating three-dimensional figures if their designs were fun and appealing and simple, a la Jay Ward:

There are tons of poses and varied characters in these old specials, especially Year Without a Santa Claus. No wonder the greatest stop-motion film ever, The Nightmare Before Christmas uses Tim Burton's Rankin-Bass inspired designs so sprightly.

Vinton's lumpy pseudo realistic design eye parallels the descent of 2D animation in the quasi-realistic gutter.

The burden of the screenplay or script on animation rather than storyboard is terrible. Mark Twain has dialogue incessantly getting in the way of the wraparound meta-story: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher join the "real" Mark Twain on a wabulous, zabulous, funtabulous hot air balloon-ship ride into Halley's Comet to burn to a crisp!! Yay!!!

Every now and then the kids step into a story room or get bored and Mark Twain shows up to tell a story, and the narration is mostly all there is. The problem with celebrating a writer's work in the only moving visual medium more visual than movies is it's not best suited to Mark Twain's rote dramatizations of "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" with it's potato-faced Klasky-Csupo looking monstrosities mumbling their lines with wrinkly mouths and waving their giant monkey hands around.

The "Diaries of Adam and Eve" segments dilutes Twain's original caustic satire of the sexes into a Sunday morning bible programming for kids. Those clay figures and puppets also waddled rather than walked and rarely lifted their arms above shoulder length. Good thing the narration straight from Twain makes it all hang together...or so Vinton thinks. A folksy saying here, a bit of profundity there.

One of the strangest features of American animation's decline is the discovery that even the cheap and hurried cartoons of yesteryear contain pleasant idiosyncratic surprises. Older limited animation can actually be fun and unique rather than incompetent, such as Clutch Cargo (bizarre,) Speed Racer (hyper-stylized,) or Roger Ramjet, as John K illustrates.

When bad 80s animation was at its most competent and attempted deliberate ugliness, rather than poor attempts at appeal, the results were at least interesting. Heavy Metal Rock N' Rule have some beautifully ugly paintings and layouts, as do the Mordor scenes in the Rankin-Bass animated Tolkien movies.

In the field of stop-motion animation, Will Vinton's silver lining to the formal stodginess of his imagination is found in the dark corners of the imagination, where there is little room for the cutesiness to which he is inclined. The "Mysterious Stranger" segment is the best moment of the film, unforgettable to me as a child, when I briefly glimpsed it at a friend's house and could not identify it for years. Apparently many people had the same experience, as this excerpted clip now has over five million views on YouTube (under another uploading.)

Like Disney, the only cool things CUTE animation studios do are when they decide to be SCARY. I advise saving your time with The Adventures of Mark Twain and simply enjoying the following.

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