In this age where computer-generated animation has largely supplanted older traditional methods, the labor intensive stop-motion process is a dying breed. This week, studio Laika keeps the format breathing with ‘The BoxTrolls’. Whether this movie will be held up as a classic over time remains to be seen, but we’d like to celebrate the effort by remembering some of our other favorite stop-motion productions, both from cinema and TV.
As most of you know, the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated specials were a big staple of the 1970s, particularly during Christmas. While most will point to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ as the best of the lot, I hold a special place in my heart for 1974’s ‘The Year Without a Santa Claus‘, which introduced us to the most famous set of siblings this side of Frank and Jesse James: the Miser Brothers. Heat Miser controlled all the warm weather in the world, but it was his frigid brother Snow Miser (who, of course, controlled all the cold weather) that really caught my attention. Voiced by Dick Shawn, Snow Miser and his band of miniature-sized minions bring down the house in what just might be the best musical number ever in a kid’s holiday special.
Perhaps because of childhood memories of ‘Davey and Goliath’ (literally the only kids’ show on early Sunday mornings growing up), when ‘Wallace & Gromit‘ came out in the late 1980s, I was immediately drawn in. The characters are silly and endearing, and the storylines appeal to grown-ups and kids alike. It’s hard to watch these productions without a grin of wonder and joy. Wallace has his silly contraptions, while Gromit gives sideways looks at his master. My favorite has to be the evil penguin in ‘The Wrong Trousers’. One would expect that two simple black balls of clay for eyes would by definition be “beady,” but these were really beady. I recommend any of the ‘Wallace & Gromit’ movies for all ages.
‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox‘ – Wes Anderson directing, based on a Roald Dahl book, with voices by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, and an opossum with spinning eyes. Check, check, check, check, check – all great ingredients for a great animated movie. It’s another favorite for all ages.
‘Mary and Max‘ – I can’t call this a favorite, really, but it’s the most recent stop-motion animated movie I’ve seen. It’s one of those movies that I’m glad I watched, but I’m not sure quite whom to recommend it to, and I would not recommend it for kids. The main characters are voiced by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Mary is a lonely young girl who lives in Australia with her alcoholic mother and becomes a pen pal to Max, an older man in New York City with multiple mental health issues. It’s an odd journey through the letters and their lives. It’s like one of those upbeat pop songs that has crazy lyrics (“Lust for Life” comes to mind). It has all the visual details and great design you expect, but the overall plot is far beyond the childish quirkiness that normally accompanies animation.
After at least ten years of watching and rewatching the ‘Wallace & Gromit’ short films, the feature length ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ was a bit of a disappointment when it came out in 2005. While that film had some high points, it never achieved the level of cleverly wild action and humor in what I think is the best of the shorts.
‘The Wrong Trousers’ follows Wallace and Gromit as they rent out a room to a inscrutable chicken, actually a tiny penguin in disguise, who is planning a bank robbery using Wallace’s latest invention, a pair of mechanical pants. The film is so well made that we actually studied the final train scene in one of my freshman film editing courses. If you haven’t seen any of the other ‘Wallace & Gromit’ shorts, this is the one to watch first.
M. Enois Duarte
A recent stop-motion flick that I found myself really enjoying was Tim Burton’s remake of his own live-action short film, ‘Frankenweenie‘. It had been a while since I loved anything from Burton (although ‘Sweeney Todd’ was quite enjoyable), so I was surprised and mesmerized by this animated movie. What I love best is the atmosphere and throwback to classic horror, filled with lots of references to the genre. For a fan such as myself, this was a great joy and source of constant laughter. It made me feel a bit like a kid again. The movie will become a Halloween staple around my house.
When it comes to stop-motion animation in 2014, there’s no way you can ignore ‘Robot Chicken‘, which has employed the medium to hilarious effect for the better part of decade. While segments on the show typically will spoof a given TV series, movie, toy line or whatnot, it’s how the show can creatively and effectively mesh iconic designs and excellent facial expressions that makes the animation stand out. There are tons of great episodes and segments, but 2006’s ‘A Very Dragon Ball Z Christmas’ (in the Easter Basket episode) takes the cake.
With each new feature film the studio puts out, I’m becoming a bigger fan of Laika’s stop-motion movies. While ‘Coraline’ was awesome, ‘ParaNorman‘ came out of left field and returned me to my childhood. We’ve seen the concept of kids who see dead people before, but not from the aspect of the kid accepting and not being haunted by what he’s able to see. Because of that, the character is a misunderstood outcast, which is easy to sympathize and connect with. On top of that, the story that Norman finds himself caught up in is downright scary! It reminds me of the creepy 1980s horror movies I grew up watching – you know, the kind that were rated PG but definitely shouldn’t have been. When you finally see the whole picture of the story, it’s a pretty dark and disturbing little tale with a completely relevant and important moral. The animation is fluid and gorgeous. The voice actors are perfect (Casey Affleck owns it). My kids love ‘ParaNorman’, but I’ll bet they don’t love it as much as their dad does.
A lot of good selections are taken above. I hate to sound like a cliché by saying that my favorite stop-motion movie is ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘, but c’mon… ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is amazing. A demented Rankin/Bass holiday special by way of a German Expressionist silent, a classic Universal horror picture and a Hollywood musical, the movie is a giddy mix of pop culture influences yet unmistakably Tim Burton at his best. The intricate animation is a wondrous thing to behold as the camera restlessly swoops through the twisted Gothic sets and past all manner of color creatures that go bump in the night. The story delivers valuable moral lessons for the kiddies without ever turning preachy, and Danny Elfman’s catchy songs are a treat. I love everything about this film.
From ‘Chicken Run’ to ‘Corpse Bride’, from ‘Gumby’ to that Season 2 Christmas episode of ‘Community’, plenty of other stop-motion productions deserve mention here. Tell us about your favorites in the Comments.