I was born in the 1980s, but a little too late to really remember its pitfalls (like huge hair and shoulder pads) or its triumphs (the advent of the music video, and of course, Steampunk) first hand. Luckily for us, this was a time when tons of weird, wonderful and sometimes experimental television and movies were being made, which captured some of the essence of that era. The 1970s and 80s saw a revival of a film technique that was pioneered by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company in 1908: clay-animation. You can see their film, A Sculptor’s Nightmare, here.
The very first stop-motion film of all time, which employed moving toys, was made in 1897. Samuel Langhorn Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, lived until 1910, so it is entirely possible that he saw the first clay-animation film and probable that he saw earlier stop-motion films as well.
The Adventures of Mark Twain was made in 1985 and is a trippy clay-anmation sojourn through the works of Mark Twain. There is a little bit of biographical information, but mostly it is a chance to showcase his contributions to literature. The viewer is swept away along on an airship adventure along with some of Twain’s best-known characters, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. Twain was born near the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1835, and always said he believed he would leave this world again the next time it passed in 1910 (he died the day after it returned), so the film revolves around him trying to keep his “appointment” and visiting some of his greatest works along the way.
Though it may seem morbid that he is racing to his own death, the film is wonderful combination of stunning visuals, abstraction and humor, which totally downplays the seemingly morbid plot line. Though I should warn you that even though this is an animated film, and so you may be thinking it was made for kids, the depiction of “The Mysterious Stranger” is pretty terrifying. Adults would get much more out of this movie than kids, especially if they have read any Twain at all.
That’s right, there was another Sherlock Holmes movie that came out around the same time as the Robert Downey Jr. movie I reviewed last week. Didn’t hear about it? I am not at all surprised.
I am a huge fan of what I call “shitty-good” movies (pardon my language, but it is utterly appropriate!) These are films that you can’t help but laugh at even though they are not meant to be comedies. The Mister and I spend a lot our time wading through the sea of crappy movies out there giving them the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. That is to say, we crack wise throughout at the terrible special effects, mediocre writing, atrocious acting and blatant continuity errors, often aided by a glass or two of our favorite adult beverages. (If you aren’t familiar with MST3K but you also enjoy terrible old movies, you MUST find them on youtube. They were shot near my hometown in MN and aired until 1999.)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, which is the first role for Ben Syder (“Robert” Sherlock Holmes. Yes, you read right, apparently his name is really Robert) and also features Torchwoods’ Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) as Watson, is just such a movie. It falls firmly into both the mockbuster (a low-budget film piggy-backing the publicity of a better-known movie) and Steampunk camps. I decided to watch it as part of my Halloween Extravaganza this month, both because I am working on my Sherlock Holmes article for Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London and because it promised me a plot full of monsters. As a Sherlock Holmes film it pretty much failed miserably, but as a movie centered on futuristic technology in the Victorian era it deserves a mention.
The story begins when a sailing ship is taken out by a Kraken-like tentacled monster. In the next scene, we get to see a dinosaur inexplicably interrupt a rendezvous with a lady of the night. So monsters, check. Sherlock is tortured by the fate that befell his brother Thorpe (yep, they didn’t even bother to get his brother’s name right), who became paralyzed after he was shot while trying to foil a bank robbery several years earlier. So ‘punking’ literature, check. After some watered-down deductions, Holmes and Watson (in the least well-fitting waistcoat of all time) find their way to a country estate where they discover the monsters are actually automatons crafted by a thoroughly ticked off Thorpe (Dominic Keating), who is bent on revenge against London, the city that forgot him, and his former partner, Inspector Lestrade. He uses his (okay, pretty awesome) mechanical dragon to wreak havoc on the masses while another automaton delivers a bomb straight to the gates of Buckingham palace. Oh yeah, and there is totally a hot air balloon/helicopter hybrid vs. mechadragon fight scene.
As I said before, this is not a “good” movie by any stretch, but it is a campy movie with undeniably Steampunk tendencies. This is definitely a popcorn movie, that is, if the shaky camera work they use to signify an action sequence doesn’t make you seasick first.
It is currently available on American Netflix, but can anyone tell me if you can get it in Britain?
Have you ever been watching a pirate movie and said to yourself, “Gee, what this really needs is some aliens!” Then this is the movie for you.
But seriously, it is a really cool re-imagining of the tale of young Jim’s adventure, which originally ran as a serial in a boys magazine in the 1880’s. There have been tons renditions of this story; plays, movies, comics, you name it. But this is the first one I have seen that really does anything to ‘punk’ it. Well, besides the Muppets of course, but even that was a pretty straight (if more kid-friendly) version of events.
Here is what is the same: Jim, the son a tavern-keeper, has big dreams for his future, but feels doomed to sweep up after sailors his whole life. A treasure map falls into his lap, and with the help of financial backer he sets off on a journey to find buried treasure. Jim (voiced by the adorable and talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt) befriends the cook, who turns out to be the leader of the mutinous band of pirates who make up the hastily conceived venture.
Here’s what’s different: They are freaking space pirates! They travel in ships that resemble the beautiful wooden pirate ships of old , but the sails glitter with electricity and ports perch precariously on a crescent moon.
There are aliens galore, including the catlike Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) who is a woman in this version of the story. I love places like the Star Trek universe where no one seems to balk at how anyone else appears or acts pretty much ever, they are totally open-minded.
The whole movie is an interesting intersection of the old and new. John Silver (Brian Murray) is in fact both an alien AND a cyborg and it is his metal leg that gives him John’s iconic limp. The “map” that Jim encounters gets a nice spacey make over as a metal sphere that only he figures out how to open.
Once they reach the Treasure Planet, Jim meets a robot who has literally lost his mind (Martin Short). There is a vital part of his memory bank that is missing, but that doesn’t keep him from helping out however he can and adding fun along the way.
I thought this was a really fun movie and definitely worth watching on a big television. Too bad I missed this one in the theaters! The animation is absolutely gorgeous and is a combination of hand drawn 2D laid over 3D computer graphics.
Kids and adults will really enjoy this movie. There are clever jokes that kids won’t get but parents will appreciate. Moreso than in the book, this film really puts Silver into the role of surrogate father for Jim and explores that relationship more.
Who are your favorite spaceship and airship pirates?