"Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" is not a documentary exposé about the director's necrophilic predilections, but rather another spooky stop-motion feature from the black-clad auteur who brought us "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Burton is perhaps Hollywood's greatest advocate of the art of stop-motion animation, an ancient (in motion picture terms) process in which objects, such as puppets, are filmed by a camera one frame at a time. Between the shooting of each frame, the objects are moved ever so slightly, so that when the film is run at a minimum of 15 frames per second, the illusion of movement is achieved. The method has been around for as long as cinema has existed, dating back to George Mélies' 1902 silent film, "A Trip to the Moon." In the century since, some really cool films and TV shows have made use of the distinctive process.
Name a few? We're glad you asked ...
"King Kong" (1933)
When "King Kong" hit the big screen in 1933, it caused a sensation unlike any movie up until that time. Pioneering stop-motion artist Willis O'Brien's jerky giant ape may seem quaint by today's standards (you can see the manipulators' handprints on Kong's rustling fur), but back in the '30s, audiences had never seen anything so spectacular. While Peter Jackson's new Kong promises to deliver the goods this Christmas, it's more than doubtful that his film's protagonist and its look and feel will have a fraction of the lasting impact of the original "8th Wonder of the World." We moviegoers are so jaded by constantly evolving and improving CGI technology that we're almost never moved anymore to ask, "How did they do that?" And that's a shame.
"The Devil's Ball" (1934)
The French-Russian-Polish director Wladyslaw Starewicz's 1910 beetle-battle short, "Lucanus Cervus," is generally regarded as the first animated puppet film — Starewicz used genuine beetle carcasses to embody his protagonists — and it spawned a series of stop-motion pictures utilizing insects and animals. But it's his 1934 short, "The Devil's Ball," that feels really groundbreaking more than 70 years later. In the film, the devil emerges from a bottle of booze and hosts a party for a menagerie of grotesque creatures — and one beautiful girl who is attacked by an amorous monkey. Avian skeletons, animated vegetables, debauched demons and a tough guy who looks just like Willem Dafoe (really!) dance, drink, smoke, assault and kill in this disturbingly beautiful short.
"Davey and Goliath" (1960)
On the other end of the moral spectrum resides "Davey and Goliath," a Claymation TV series about an innocent, trouble-prone lad and his talking dog/ conscience. Produced by the Lutheran Church, the preachiness of the series is balanced by how surreal it often seems. Davey's sister Sally looks like she's stepped straight off a box of Swiss Miss, adults often have an unintentionally menacing air about them and attempts at depicting different races, while commendable, often feel disturbingly like puppetry blackface. Unintentionally, "Davey and Goliath" could be almost as bizarre as creator Art Clokey's next series, "Gumby and Pokey."
"Santa Rides the Norelco Razor" (1961)
We realize that it's breaking all precedent to list a commercial in this column — after all, even mentioning TV shows is pushing the format — but for generations of Americans, watching for the Norelco commercial where Santa Claus rides an electric shaver through the snow became an annual holiday rite as important as hanging the stockings. Those knuckleheads at Norelco stopped running the ad in 1996 but wised up in 2002 and brought back the smiling Santa. Come to think of it, though, isn't a guy with an enormous beard a less-than-ideal pitchman for a razor company? Let's move on.
"Jason and the Argonauts" (1963)
Director Don Chaffee's adaptation of the classic Greek adventure tale would be rightly dismissed as a simple B-movie were it not for the wondrous stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen. Aside from bringing to life legendary monsters such as the winged harpies and the multi-headed Hydra, the movie boasts a still-spectacular battle between the Argonauts and an army of sword-wielding skeletons. For this epic battle scene alone, Harryhausen's name will forever be synonymous with stop-motion animation. He went on to tackle more big-screen epics such as the dinosaur flick "the Valley of Gwangi" (1969), "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" (1977) and "Clash of the Titans" (1981).
"Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964)
For many of us, the "Animagic" TV specials by Rankin/Bass were our first exposure to stop-motion and, after all these years, they remain favorites — particularly the adaptation of the Johnny Marks song "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Featuring such indelible characters as Hermey (not "Herbie," as people often mistakenly call him) the misfit elf who wants to be a dentist; gold and silver prospector Yukon Cornelius; the Abominable Snow Monster, a.k.a. "Bumble"; and, of course, Charlie-in-the-Box, this charming, funny, moving hour-long treat has (despite some period chauvinism) become a perennial classic, inspiring dozens of tributes and parodies, including MADtv's hilarious "Raging Rudolph" short by Corky Quakenbush.
"Mad Monster Party" (1967)
Tagged, for some reason, with a question mark in the main title sequence, "Mad Monster Party" was Rankin/Bass' campy theatrical feature that brought classic cinematic beasties the Wolfman, Dracula, the Creature (from some other Lagoon), the Invisible Man, the Mummy and Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde to a gathering at Dr. Frankenstein's castle. When the evil doc announces that his nerdy nephew Felix (voiced by a Jimmy Stewart impersonator) is going to take the reins of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters, the others revolt and plot to gain control. "MMP" also features the most voluptuous puppet in history (the redheaded Francesca) and the odd casting of Phyllis Diller, playing herself as the bride of the Frankenstein monster.
"Street of Crocodiles" (1986)
Hugely influenced by Wladyslaw Starewicz, as well as by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay combine an industrial esthetic with puppets made out of old dolls, bones and other props straight out of an episode of "CSI." Considered by most fans to be their quintessential work, "Street of Crocodiles" depicts an ancient Kinetoscope in which puppets perform bizarre rituals inspiring not only nightmares, but darn near every music video ever made by Tool, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails.
"The Wrong Trousers" (1993)
Arguably the best-loved of Nick Park's tales featuring Wallace and Gromit, "The Wrong Trousers" pits the claymation duo against a duplicitous penguin who plots to use a pair of mechanical pants invented by Wallace (so Gromit can walk himself) to commit a daring jewel heist. The action-packed climax on a speeding miniature train is not only gut-bustingly hilarious, it's genuinely exciting.
"The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)
The film that launched a thousand goth accessories, "Tim Burton's the Nightmare Before Christmas" (directed by Henry Selick) was, amazingly, the first stop-motion feature to receive worldwide distribution. It's the charmingly retro tale of how Jack Skellington of Halloweentown accidentally discovers the existence of Christmas and struggles to understand its meaning while scaring a lot of little kids in the process. What makes "Nightmare" so remarkable in its success is, goth imagery aside, how unabashedly old-fashioned this musical homage to "Rudolph" is.
Stop-motion animation is an aspect of filmmaking that, like hand-drawn 2-D animation, physical pyrotechnics and living actors, seems in danger of being rendered obsolete by computer technology. But let's hope that's not the case: as Hermey and Rudolph taught us, there's always a need for misfits.
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