I love a good feature length stop-motion movie. But now it’s time to think about the stop-motion animation that can sometimes appear in the most unlikely of places: in a live action movie. Sometimes it’s to be part of the special effects, sometimes it’s for artistic creativity, and sometimes it’s both (I’m looking at you Wes Anderson and Tim Burton!). So let’s not waste another moment, fellow animation fans. Let’s take a look at those frame-by-frame animated scenes that deserve our attention.
10. Elf (2003)
Clearly a parody (or homage?) of all those classic Christmas stop-motion shorts, I wanted to put this one on the list simply because of how good the animation looks. It’s so pristine and the designs of the characters are so cute. This could easily have looked so out of place, and even creepy. But the childlike colorful look in the opening of this live action movie made it the perfect place for a talking snowman and penguin to appear. And how can you not love Mr. Narwhal? “Bye, Buddy, hope you fine your dad.”
9. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
What can say? The effects for this movie, even for its time, are pretty good. If you go back and watch it now you don’t cringe as much as you do with other films of that era that “attempted” to use CG. And the battle between the giant stop-motion scorpion and the ant are as good as anything Ray Harryhausen (we’ll get to him later) could conjure up. But don’t take my word for it. Go and check out these nostalgic special effects for yourself.
8. The Fall (2006)
Anyone who has ever seen a Tarsem Singh film (Mirror Mirror, The Immortals) knows that he’s all about cinematography and imagery. This couldn’t be more true of his film The Fall. One could take a screencap from any moment in this movie and frame it on the wall. This is why a very short stop-motion sequence doesn’t look out of place. When the little girl, Alexandria, falls unconscious the scene cuts to an animated sequence that looks similar to a Brothers Quay short. Alexandria is now a doll being fixed by Vampire-like doctors. I’m going to argue that this scene has both substance and style. Yes, it does seem a bit off-putting to suddenly change your style of storytelling but it does represent, in the simplest way, how the girl is feeling. So, this sequence is not something that should be watched in isolation from the movie but should be experienced in context.
7. Moonwalker (1988)
Does anyone remember the Speed Demon segment from this Michael Jackson movie? We all know Jackson was like a big kid and this scene always reminds me of that. He does a brilliant job reacting and giggling at the claymation characters around him (the characters that are animated long after Jackson’s gone back to his trailer). So, what’s a famous popstar supposed to do when he’s being chased by a mob of stop-motion characters? Why, disguise yourself as a giant claymation rabbit on a motorcycle, of course!
6. Return to Oz (1985)
I’m part of the group that loves this creative cult movie. I remember picking this one off the shelf a lot when I was kid, even more so than the classic MGM musical. Not because it was necessarily better, but because it was so offbeat and bizarre. Even today the imagery sticks with me. The Nome King (a giant man made of rock, in case you didn’t know) has these followers of…well, rocks. Their faces appear and disappear inside rocks all over Oz. I’m still amazed at how they created this effect so well. [Spoiler] There’s also this incredibly well animated, and very dramatic, Nome King death scene that’s worth checking out.
5. The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou (2004)
Before Wes Anderson made a full-length stop-motion movie (Fantastic Mr. Fox) he made this little gem. And in this movie he took known sea creatures and changed them slightly to make them a little more interesting. With the help of Coraline director Henry Selick, Anderson added stop-motion creatures like the brightly colored ‘Crayon Ponyfish’ and the giant ‘Jaguar Shark.’ Selick stated that the Jaguar Shark was the biggest stop-motion puppet that has ever been made. Now that’s filmmaking.
4. Beetlejuice (1988)
This is another one of those examples in which stop-motion doesn’t look out of place. Though Beetlejuice is a live action character, he’s so animated that it doesn’t surprise the viewer when he turns into a giant stop-motion snake. We know Tim Burton is familiar with stop-motion animated movies but back in the 80s he used is a special effects tool. There’s a pretty impressive face transformation scene and a giant sandworm with a head inside of a head (it’s Tim Burton, what can you say?). Imagine the creatures from A Nightmare Before Christmas in full scale and in a live action setting and you have the movie Beetlejuice. And it works. It really does.
3. Jason and the Argonauts (1964)
How can I make this list without mentioning those skeletons with swords? Remember I mentioned a guy named Ray Harryhausen? If you needed stop-motion effects, particularly for big monsters, then he was your go-to guy. He’s such an animation legend that there was a restaurant named after him in Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Aardman co-founder Nick Park credits Harryhausen’s work as being his inspiration. He’s worked on movies such as One Million Years B.C, the original Mighty Joe Young, and Clash of the Titans, to name but a few. There are obviously a lot of monsters and moments that are astounding pieces of stop-motion animation but there is a reason why the skeleton scene is so iconic. Not only is the animation of the skeletons impressive, but the fighting and physical interaction with the live action actors is seamless. It blows my mind how they must’ve timed everything for the scene to look believable. If you haven’t seen it before, I urge you to take a look at it now.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
You’ve probably already guessed that I love the good ol’ days when animatronics and stop-motion were used for special effects. So don’t give me re-cuts and specials edits with new updated special effects. Just give me the film as it was initially made. You may have heard of Star Wars. It’s a pretty big franchise. There are a few stop-motion effects in the early Star Wars films but, for me, the AT-ATs are the best. The Empire Strikes Back showed what stop-motion could achieve in live action movies and, since the AT-ATs were machines, it was the perfect device to create their robotic movements.
1. King Kong (1933)
This was the first movie that came to mind when I thought about this list. It’s the quintessential stop-motion animated monster. I remember I watched this movie as kid and loved how he looked and how he moved. Of course the animation is a little jerky, but that’s all part of the charm. For a film made so long ago you wouldn’t expect there to be so much personality put into King Kong. Luckily there is. There had to be. He’s the central character. I think that’s one of the reasons why this movie has endured for so long. Would the movie be so popular if we didn’t care about King Kong himself? He had a love for Fay Wray that, even now, I genuinely believe in. We have this movie to thank for Peter Jackson’s love of filmmaking too. He loved this movie so much that he took the skeletal model of the original King Kong as his date to the premiere of his 2005 remake (which even I’ll admit has pretty good CG effects).
What do you think of these stop-motion scenes? Is there a personal favourite of yours that’s missing from the list?
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes