The handmade art of frame-by-frame, stop-motion animation is a tedious, time-consuming craft that produces an astonishing illusion of motion. It clearly displays the most basic way we absorb images, from the initial explorations of the technique in 1898's The Humpty Dumpty Circus and the brilliant dino-work of Willis O'Brien's The Lost World from 1925, advancing past the monumental achievements of Ray Harryhausen's Dynamation in films like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and far into the modern age of holiday TV classics by Rankin/Bass like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town.
Laika's Kubo and the Two Strings unspools in theaters today with its samurai odyssey and amazing armatured puppets, and only time will tell if it can unseat our crowned champion. Kubo represents the next stage in stop-motion animation in the 21st century and showcases some truly magical advances in 3D printing technology and fluid, computer-aided design.
With Kubo's triumphant arrival, now is the perfect time to reflect back on 14 all-time stop-motion favorites and see how they stack up against each other in a competitive Olympic-level event. See if you agree with my positioning and shout out any that might have been missed in this elemental cinematic dance of time and space.
14) MAD MONSTER PARTY - 1967
Produced at the height of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV spectacles, this feature film was a magnificent monster mash of all the classic horror creatures including Frankenstein's Monster, The Werewolf, Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Hunchback and Dr. Jekyll. What's not to like about a swingin' shreik-fest featuring the voices of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller as the Host With The Least! This is a forgotten treasure for anyone who was weaned on the Animagic miracles of Rankin/Bass.
13) THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS - 2012
A smart-alecky buccanneer adventure from the producers of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit that pokes serious fun at the rousing pirate mythology with our hapless captain hero (Hugh Grant) racing across the seven seas trying to best his smarmy, cutlass-equipped competitors Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz. Adapted from the first book in The Pirates! series, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe. The movie is a silly sea saga with some knockout jokes suitabe for the whole family and was Grant's first animated role.
12) CORALINE - 2009
Based on the book by fanatsy and horror icon Neil Gaiman, Coraline was the first stop-motion feature to be conceived and photographed in stereoscopic 3D. Written and directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach), it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature film and helped catapult little Portland-based Laika into the limelight.
11) PARANORMAN - 2012
Another entry from Laika made our celebrated list, and although this stirring supernatural tale suffers from some poor pacing and editing issues, it has the pure heart the Portland studio was trying to develop and refine, but the whole production falls a bit short in the end. ParaNorman was the first stop-motion film to utilize a 3D Color Printer to create replacement faces for its roster of puppets. Over 40,000 individual face parts were printed for the production. An important entry in the advancement of the craft, done with loving care.
10) JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH - 1996
Another Roald Dahl classic brought to life by the creative team behind The Nightmare Before Christmas. Beautifully rendered in flawless animated sequences, the film drags a bit toward the end but children always seem to be captivated by the antics of the big bugs and the adventurous British boy, James, in his humongous piece of fruit. There are a small measure of live-action scenes but the majority was all filmed using stop-motion techniques. Nominated for a 1997 Academy Award for Randy Newman's Original Musical Score.
9) FRANKENWEENIE - 2012
A full-length feature adaptation of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie short from 1984 while under contact at Disney, telling the touching tale of a boy trying to resurrect his expired dog, Sparky. Contains all of Burton's odd-ball humor, imagination and life lessons learned after other beloved pets go on a monstrous rampage following resuscitation. Gloriously filmed in stark black and white, Frankenweenie was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 85th Academy Awards and was the first stop-motion film to be released in IMAX 3D.
8) THE BOXTROLLS - 2014
A strange and surreal entry from Laika cracks the Top 10, thanks to its irreverant tone and audacity to depict a weird community of cardboard-clad trolls happily raising a kidnapped kid named Eggs beneath the Victorian village of Cheesebridge. .Based on the 550-page children's book, Here Be Monsters!, by Alan Snow, the 3D animated fantasy was nominated for Best Animated Feature at that year's Academy Awards. If you missed this one from Travis Knight's Laika, give it a look to see the advancements the company made since ParaNorman and its wild absurdist sense of humor and tell us if Kubo and the Two Strings tops it.
7) CORPSE BRIDE - 2005
I always felt Corpse Bride was a little underappreciated, living in the shadow of its bigger Burton brother, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Tim Burton and Mike Johnson shared directorial duties on this 19th century Russian fairy tale centered around Victor, a young nobleman dragged into the land of the undead right before his wedding. Johnny Depp provides the voice for Victor and Danny Elfman returns with a soothingly sophisticated musical score.
6) CHICKEN RUN - 2000
Exactly what do the hens and roosters do when the coop is locked tight for the night? This crowd-pleasing Claymation offering by the creators of the Wallace and Gromit shorts answers that very question with a rowdy barnyard soap opera adventure. It's a playful adaptation of The Great Escape paired with a monstrous pot pie-making machne and all the humor and originality fans loved from Aardman Animation. A real gamble for Dreamworks that paid off in a lot more than just a basket of eggs. Of all the films on this list, Chicken Run holds the honor of having the biggest box office tally at $225 million worldwide.
5) GUMBY: THE MOVIE - 1995
The little green glob of clay and his pony pal Pokey are front and center in this deliriously cool Claymation feature. It's hard resist the near-nightmarish quality of this children's release which centers around Gumby searching for his dog Lowbelly, who was kidnapped by the dastardly Blockheads who desire the pearl drops he weeps. Directed by 74-year-old Gumby creator Art Clokey, who also did the vocals for the golden dino, Prickle, Pokey the mini red equine and Gumby's dad, Gumbo. Watch it, dammit!
4) THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN - 1985
Billing itself as the first feature film produced in Claymation, this trippy stop-motion movie takes you from the Mississippi River to the Milky Way and into the heart of Haley's comet on a grand adventure with the irascible Mark Twain. Directed by legendary animator Will Vinton, the man responsible for The California Raisins ad campaign. Will Vinton Studios folded in 2002 after Nike investors took control of the company and renamed it Laika Studios. The animation is wildly inventive and the production has an celebratory, old-fashioned quality missing from today's jaded times.
3) WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT - 2005
Wallace and Gromit's shorts by Nick Park were already well-established and acclaimed when this feature-length madcap adventure surprised audiences in 2005 as a follow-up to Aardman Animation's highly-successful Chicken Run. This was the kooky Claymation duo's first feature film and it scored at the box office, raking in nearly $200 million worldwide, telling a Halloween-ish tale of a mutant rabbit gobbling up gardens at Tottington Hall. Won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature of 2005. Cheese, anyone?
2) FANTASTIC MR. FOX - 2009
Quirky director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) dove into stop-motion to adapt Roald Dahl's (Charlie and The Chocolate Factory) hilarious tale of the resourceful Mr. Fox and his plans to steal tasty grub from a trio of nasty farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. This book was a great favorite of mine as a kid staying home from school reading a stack from my bedroom bookshelf. A killer vocal cast including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe provides some uproarious laughs.
1) THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS - 1993
I tried so hard to find one stop-motion feature that could take down Tim Burton and Henry Selick's Halloween-time masterpiece from 1993. Nobody will unseat this gold medal champion! It's stood the test of time and represents a striking achievement in the art, a perfect synthesis of scary holiday fun with astounding detail and a casket-ful of bone-tapping tunes by Oingo Boingo's Danny Elfman. At nearly 25 years old, Nightmare still has the ability to captivate and charm, and is considered essential viewing for millions of families at yuletide, just as popular today as it was more than two decades ago.