It’s origins can be traced by to 1897 and a film called The Humpty Dumpty Circus. There the technique was used to illustrate a collection of toys and stuffed animals coming to life. Famed film maestro George Melies used it for many of his films while Willis O’Brien popularized it with efforts such as The Lost World and King Kong.
It was George Pal, however, who brought the concept to the kiddies — so to speak — creating a collection of celebrated “Puppetoons” that cemented the approach as part of the family film ideal. For most of us in the West, however, it was television and the work of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass that made stop-motion animation an aesthetic given. Though they made a few feature films, their broadcast classics like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, and Here Comes Peter Cottontail turned an entire generation onto the then dying artform.
Over the decades, the form has been resurrected and rejected, film fans either curious over the choice or crazy for the results. Just this week, upstart production company Laika will bring The Boxtrolls to theaters. Based on the novel Here Be Monsters! , the story centers on a young boy, raised by underground dwelling creatures, and his eventual reemergence as part of the “real” world. While it has its issues both narratively and in its character design, it proves that stop-motion is now a viable alternative to the more flashy and futuristic obsession with CG.
With this in mind, we present a list of the 10 Best Stop-Motion Animated Films. While there are several foreign films to pick from, we strategically stayed in the West, mostly because of the difficulty in seeing some of these renowned works around our neck of the wood. No matter, the titles here more than make up for a lack of access, beginning with a true unknown quantity:
The team of Rankin and Bass are best known for their TV holiday hits. Their movies, on the other hand, are more cult classics than certifiable gems. This one centers on a young boy who builds a faulty time machine in an attempt to stop a wacky mad scientist from altering history. He ends up interacting with General Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Christopher Columbus, and King Arthur, with stops in Ancient Egypt, Rome, and prehistoric times. While the emphasis on education is obvious (the duo were attempting to make the past “cool” for the kids), the technique is terrific.
George Pal more or less made stop-motion acceptable to the ankle-biter crowd, and here is the reason why. A compendium of short films illustrating the man’s painstaking technique (he would build different versions of each character, interchanging them to recreate form and movement), many suffer from a very narrow view of minorities and accompanying stereotypes. Those era-arguable issues aside, Pal’s perfectionism is on display in every frame. Sometimes, it’s impossible to imagine that these movies were done by a human being, and not a precision calculating computer. In fact, the film at number two borrowed a bunch from the Puppetoons.
Laika gets the first of two shout-outs here, and the reason is obvious. Unlike present day kid video efforts, this studio understands that, sometimes, a family film needs to be scary and just a bit serious. Here we have a young boy whose obsession with zombies comes into play when his small town is overrun with reanimated corpses. Granted, these are not Walking Dead level gore-fiends, but the film still manages to make these monsters into effective fear factors. Even better, the film’s focus on misfits means that it avoids many of the issues raised by stories like this, and instead, argues for being true to yourself.
It started out as a joke, crude five-minute shorts made with cheap dime store toys. After a run of 20 episodes, a feature film was proposed. The story centers on the main characters — Horse (a horse), Cowboy (a cowboy figurine), and Indian (a toy statue) — planning for a birthday celebration. Unfortunately, instead of the number they needed, they mistakenly order 50 million bricks to build a barbeque. As much a commentary on the stop-motion format, as a hilarious send-up of the Saturday morning formula, there’s a bit of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse in this jolly collaboration between Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
Some may see this entry and shout, “NO!” After all, just look at the trailer and see if you can find the flaw. Did you say that this is a traditionally animated sci-fi allegory? Well, you’re wrong. Apparently, we are watching 2D pen and ink drawings carefully positioned and photographed in the old school method. Think South Park‘s cut-out strategy without the crude, rude satire. The result is something otherworldly, which matched the Bacon and Dali inspired designs perfectly. Some say this is nothing more than a series of fever dreams devised for the drug-fueled audience member, but it’s also a reminder that stop-motion isn’t always puppets or claymation.
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Rankin/Bass again, and this time the premise is perfectly encapsulated in the technique. The idea here is that the classic creatures from Universal — Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Quasimodo, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon — get together to celebrate a mad scientist’s discover of the secret of total destruction. Sadly, the nephew of the insane madman shows up and starts causing trouble. With the voice talents of Phyllis Diller and Boris Karloff, there is a real swinging ’60s vibe to the production. There’s even a set of skeletons mocking the Beatles.
Perhaps the greatest modern purveyors of the artform, Aardman Animations first introduced these characters back in the late ’80s. A slew of Oscars followed. When a feature film was suggested, the horror route was agreed upon, and we ended up with this hilarious spoof, featuring our naive inventor and his smarter than he looks dog dealing with a carrot stealing monster. They have to protect their populace — and their prized crops — before the Giant Vegetable Competition takes place. Naturally, we end up with all manner of brilliant choreographed action sequences (a W&G given) and lots of nutty English humor.
Wes Anderson feel in love with stop-motion animation during the filming of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, enjoying his collaboration with Henry Selick so much that he decided to try his hand at the format. The result was this amazing adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book. With some help from Mark Gustafson, Anderson used Steiff like creatures and some interesting natural backdrops to highlight his inventive approach. In fact, there are times when the characters in The Fantastic Mr. Fox truly resemble life-like versions of their critter counterparts. The brilliant voice work of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murray, et. al. seals the deal.
Henry Selick had actually signed on to help Wes Anderson realize his Fantastic Mr. Fox aims when the studio supporting the project collapsed. While the movie regrouped, he joined up with Laika to bring Neil Gaiman’s clever coming-of-age tale to life. One of the best films ever made via the stop-motion technique, Selick showed his strong suit — that is, George Pal like precision without the aid of computers or other modern technologies. But there is more to this incredibly creative talent that lockstep meticulousness. In fact, the actual characterizations and attention to narrative are just as effective, if not more so, than the visual panache.
Selik again, with the film that truly announced the return of stop-motion animation. Story creator and producer Tim Burton had loved the technique, using it for his famous short film Vincent. When Disney okayed this project, they were hoping for a hit. They didn’t get one (Nightmare did poorly at the box office). What they did get, however, was a masterpiece, a compelling combination of genres, tropes, traditions, and holiday givens wrapped up in Burton’s own warped worldview. Today, it’s part of the filmmaker’s acclaimed canon. Oddly enough, Selick seems to get little of the credit he so richly deserves.