We are culture of fast food and microwavable meals. We are a culture of online shopping with overnight shipping. We order movies instantly on Netflix and enjoy them with the company of instant popcorn. We are American.
As a culture that values instant gratification above all things, it’s difficult to imagine that Americans appreciate the timely art of stop motion animation. But we do, in some sense of the idea.
Stop motion animation is the act of making objects appear to move on their own by manipulating them in small increments between photographed frames. Puppets, dolls or clay figures are most often the medium of choice—think beloved pop-culture phenomenon Gumby, circa 1960.
In all honesty, it is more the nostalgia connected with stop motion animation that beckons our return. It seems to be more of an appreciation we have for the characters the artists create rather than an appreciation for the art itself.
Annual television Christmas specials are stop motion animation films at their finest, a tradition delighting generations both young and old. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer employs fuzzy reindeer and wooden elves to enliven the story of the misfit and his glowing nose that eventually saves Christmas. Santa Claus is Coming to Town makes use of wooden dolls and the voice of Mickey Rooney to tell the story of Kris Kringle and his battle to overcome the Winter Warlock. And it pretty much goes without saying, he too saves Christmas.
We love these characters because they salvage and harness the pure spirit of Christmas, a favorite holiday of the greedy American. Rudolph and Kringle are a heartwarming tribute to innocence and perseverance. We associate these characters with Christmas during childhood, rendering an overwhelming affection.
Then there are Henry Selick’s avant-garde masterpieces, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Armed with his sheer talent for stop motion animation, Selick enters the warped world of Tim Burton in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Pumpkin King Jack Skellington is ghoulishly friendly, and brings the gothic feel of Halloween to the puritan feel of Christmas, coffin-inspired sleigh and skeletal reindeer included. Though it involves the kidnapping and torturing of Santa Claus, it is a visually stunning film infused with raw wit. Selick also crafts a delightfully whimsical and twisted world for James, one that we might expect from Roald Dahl book adaptation. The back-yard adventure of a boy who befriends a few bugs inspires an intricate and imaginary atmosphere.
Again, it is Jack and James that we love. The animation from Selick is beyond brilliant to say the least, but as far as a sincere appreciation for the intricacies and timeliness of the art of stop motion animation, Americans are seriously lacking.
But the question remains, would we love the characters as much if they were computer generated? It’s no secret Americans have an undying affection for nostalgia. Stop motion became popular in the mid-1900s, particularly in the 1960s with the promotion of honest humility via Gumby and his sidekick, Pokey. There is just something about him—that kind smile and curious eyes are the essence of childhood.
We love stop motion film for its nostalgia, but not for its artistry. The appreciation is there, but not in the manner most desired.