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The Macabre World of Stop-motion Animation

The Macabre World of Stop-motion Animation

Articles - Directing

Stop-motion, the animation technique in which a physically manipulated object appears to move on its own, has been wowing audiences for over a century. The first film to utilize the stop-motion technique was the 1897short The Humpty Dumpty Circus, in which a toy circus of acrobats and animals come to life. Since then, the technology has become substantially more sophisticated (nowadays, stop-motion movies frequently incorporate CGI elements), but the heart of what makes stop-motion so magical—essentially, inanimate objects come to life—can be as breathtaking and unique as ever.

This Friday, October 5, sees the release of the latest stop-motion feature, Tim Burton’s much-anticipated, Frankenweenie. Adapted from Burton’s 1984 live-action short film and shot in gorgeous black-and-white, Frankenweenie is the tale of a precocious young boy named Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) who uses the power of science to bring his deceased, beloved dog back to life. The film, whose voice cast includes Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short and Martin Landau, also has the distinction of being the first stop-motion feature to be released in IMAX 3D.

With Halloween right around the corner, the release of Frankenweenie got us thinking of other macabre and creepy stop-motion animated movies. But beware—regardless of your age, these are films that are both breathtakingly beautiful and nightmare-inducing in about equal measure!

Mad Monster Party (1967)
Rankin/Bass, the production company behind perennial Christmas TV classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” turned their attention to a more macabre holiday with this fun, ghoulish tale, brought to life via “Animagic” (a term that refers to the intricately designed, doll-like characters common to all stop-motion Rankin/Bass productions). The story revolves around the retiring Baron Boris von Frankenstein (voiced—of course—by Boris Karloff), who brings together an assortment of famous monsters to his castle so he can decide on his successor. The motley crew includes Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, the Werewolf, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man and many more. With its corny but fun puns (the script was written by Mad Magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman) and ghoulish visual style, Mad Monster Party is a treat for fans of the classic Universal monster movies as well as an obvious influence on the stop-motion work of Tim Burton, who was an impressionable youngster when the movie was released.

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)
Wait, you’re probably asking yourself, how could a movie about Mark Twain possibly be creepy or macabre? Directed by claymation pioneer Will Vinton (best known for his once-ubiquitous “California Raisins” commercials), the film is, for the most part, a genial, kid-friendly adventure—in which three of Twain’s classic characters—Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn—join the famous author on a perilous journey, based upon elements from his own stories. The “creepy” part comes into play during one unforgettable, nightmarish sequence (available on YouTube), inspired by Twain’s dark final novel, The Mysterious Stranger. Here, the three kids come across a strange but seemingly good-hearted being who brings to life a tiny kingdom of clay figures. As the segment continues, the stranger becomes more hateful and cruel, systematically destroying the entire kingdom and showing the futility of mankind. At the end of the sequence, it is revealed that the stranger is actually Satan in disguise. With its bleak tone and disturbing visuals, this scary, thought-provoking segment has surely provided nightmare material for many unsuspecting kids (and their parents) hoping to have a fun, innocuous time with The Adventures of Mark Twain.

Alice (1988)
This debut feature from influential Czech animator Jan Svankmajer is easily the strangest and most surreal adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic (and oft-filmed) novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The movie combines live-action with stop-motion to create a bizarre and original fantasy world. With its minimal dialogue, lack of a music score and creepily compelling stop-motion characters, this Alice is unlike any you’ve seen before—case in point, the White Rabbit, in this adaptation, is a taxidermically-stuffed creature who comes to life feral, bug-eyed, and equipped with razor sharp teeth—a far cry from the cute and cuddly Disney version.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Speaking of Disney, Tim Burton was an animator at the company in the early 1980s when he first hatched the idea for this ghoulishly clever ode to both Christmas and Halloween. It was only after the mega success of Batman that Burton was able to make his dream become a reality, producing the film, with Henry Selick (Coraline; James and the Giant Peach) serving as director and longtime collaborator Danny Elfman composing catchy songs. With its fluidly animated, painstakingly hand-crafted characters (whose movements are much more smoothly done and life-like than the herky-jerky animation seen in old Rankin/Bass specials) and intricately designed sets, the movie proved to be a breakthrough for stop-motion and a surprising success at the box office. Even now, nearly twenty years after its release, the movie is still as popular as ever. Despite initial concerns that the project would be too offbeat to attract a large audience, Nightmare’s macabre lead characters, Jack Skellington and Sally, have become unlikely, bonafide Disney stars, and now, every Halloween, Disneyland decorates its streets in a Nightmare Before Christmas theme.

Corpse Bride (2005)
Burton made his stop-motion directing debut with this offbeat, magical romance about a shy young man (voiced by Johnny Depp) who falls in love with a deceased woman (Helena Bonham Carter) come back to life. Despite the potentially macabre subject matter, this good-natured film is full of dry wit, fun songs (composed, once again, by Danny Elfman) and a surprisingly bittersweet ending. The voice cast is also chock-full of British talent—including Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney and Christopher Lee.

Toys in the Attic (2009)
This Czech import just had its US debut in September, though it originally premiered overseas in 2009. The film is about a community of toys (including a teddy bear, mechanical mouse and marionette) who live in a dusty attic and come to life when no humans are around. The toys are forced to join forces when one of their own—a doll named Buttercup—is kidnapped by the denizens of the Land of Evil. Despite its limited release, Toys in the Attic is well worth seeking out, due to its creepy, original imagery (which seems partly inspired by the works of Tim Burton and the previously-discussed Alice), as well as the variety of retro animation techniques utilized by director Jiri Barta, which includes not just stop-motion via puppets, but also digital effects, pixilation and cell animation.

Coraline (2009)
This unpredictable film from writer-director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) follows an adventurous girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who, after moving into a strange old house, discovers a hidden door that reveals a utopian alternate reality in which her wildest dreams come true. But, as Coraline soon realizes, this seemingly idealized parallel world (in which, creepily, everyone has buttons for eyes) holds some sinister secrets. Adapted from the darkly funny novella by Neil Gaiman (itself a kind of spin on Alice in Wonderland), the whimsical and atmospheric Coraline also has the distinction of being the first stop-motion film shot in 3D.

ParaNorman (2012)
Innovative stop-motion animation studio Laika followed up the success of Coraline with another ambitious, stop-motion feature shot in 3D, ParaNorman. The film follows an eccentric young boy (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who must do battle against ghosts, zombies and—worst of all—grown-ups in order to save his small town from a centuries-old curse. The frightfully fun movie opened to positive reviews, and is the first stop-motion film to use a 3D color printer to create character faces—this speeds up puppet production considerably, and allowed the crew to make the large number of puppet faces required for the film.

Have a creepy stop-motion childhood fave that didn’t make the list? Let us know in the comments!

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