Arriving just in time for the July 4 holiday weekend, “Mark Twain’s America in 3D” feels like a shameless attempt to lure families looking for historical relevance with the promise of kid-friendly 3-D effects. Sony Pictures Classics docu is a curiosity even by Imax standards, its content in no way consistent with either the large-screen format or 3-D technology.
Purportedly a historical account of Twain’s life and times, pic juxtaposes black-and-white stills of the celebrated literary humorist with modern footage of his hometown of Hannibal, Mo., and other locales where contemporary crowds revisit 19th-century traditions. Some of these scenes seem like an excuse to throw in 3 D effects, which are hopelessly out of place at best.
Writer director Stephen Low takes a straightforward, chronological approach to Twain’s life, interweaving narration by Anne Bancroft and photos of the author with modern day scenes. These images include the annual Hannibal parade and frog jumping contest held in Twain’s memory, contemporary steamboats on the Mississippi River, regional square-dance festivities and Civil War battle reenactments.
But rather than providing an enlightening journey through Twain’s life and legacy, the film’s clumsy attempts to integrate past and present serve only to undermine the historical significance of its subject. The detached narration and presentation distance pic’s contempo events from Twain’s story, with the peculiar result of making the 19th-century aficionados on display look like an obscure cult of history buffs.
What is missing here, despite Twain’s presence in photos and personal narrative, is any real sense of his unique and clever voice. The film’s most obvious and bizarre omission is that of his literary legacy; the characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are mentioned only fleetingly.
Even without the 3-D gimmickry and Imax technology, “Mark Twain’s America” would have its shortcomings as a documentary. But it’s a mystery why Imax veteran Low (“Across the Sea of Time,” “Titanica”) would have chosen to tell this story in such an inappropriate format. Were he living, not even Twain himself could provide the answer.