Around these parts we’re rather fond of stop-motion animation: for example, in three of the last four years our year-end “Best of” episode has seen us talking about a stop-motion animation. And some of my clearest memories of children’s television feature it: Aardman Animation’s Morph on Hartbeat, Camberwick Green and Trumpton (I don’t think Trumpton’s famous firefighter roll call of “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb” would have been quite so sticky had it not been accompanied by the distinctive stop-motion animated puppets), The Trap Door, and Paddington (which used a combination of cutout and puppet animation).
I’ve always felt that stop-motion has more soul than any other animation style. I think that’s partly because it’s clearly so painstaking: obviously, all forms, from hand-drawn cartoons to 3D computer-rendered animation can involve passion, skill and vast amounts of effort, but there’s something about knowing that everything that moved was moved by hand, one tiny increment at a time, on an object that exists in the world. And seeing the rippling of fur or plasticine caused by fingertips only adds to that sensation.
This is perhaps one of the reasons I so dislike the Lego movies: as well as being rubbish, they used computers to replicate stop-motion animation, and I rather feel that this is cheating.
Stop-motion animation has also, to me, at least, always felt particularly three-dimensional, without the need for silly glasses. And then there’s also the endless appeal of things recreated in miniature.
While some stop-motion animation has been quite quick and dirty (it has been used as an inexpensive way to produce children’s programming over the years, for example), it is typically exceptionally time-intensive, and therefore often expensive: it’s no coincidence that many feature films using stop-motion techniques are on the shorter end, and there’s a wealth of shorts out there. But, as is our wont, we’re, with one exception, sticking to features for this episode, and the bulk of our films are from 2000 onwards, but for no reason other than lack of familiarity with much that came before that, and we will be going back as far as the 1950s.
Animation in general has often struggled against the rather ignorant view that it’s for children: while Ray Harryhausen’s “Dynamation” was a term to describe his particular style of special effects animations, the name was really just a marketing term created by his production partner, Charles Schneer, to evade those negative connotations (the audience being both ignorant and stupid). Things were rather different in Eastern Europe, though, and the likes of Jiří Trnka were making animated films specifically for adult audiences.
And it’s with the Czech legend that we start, and his 1959 film Sen noci svatojánské.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Jiří Trnka is, I must confess, not an artist I was familiar with until researching this episode, by which I mean a Google search, so I’m going to assume his description as the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe means a storied and respected career dedicated to illustration, animations, and, naturally directing this stop-motion work inspired by Shakespeare, rather than a weirdo that took far too much acclaim rightly sue to the people doing the actual work and ruining the copyright system forever. Although according to that Google search he was more interested in the creation of the puppets used in his works rather than the animation itself, which was handled by a team of animators, so perhaps it’s not too far off.
Now, this is an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is intended to be more like a ballet performance than a stage play, with a heavy focus on Václav Trojan’s music with some narration to explain things a little. And I should say that this was the Czech version we watched, as going by the cast list on an English language version there must have been a very differently dubbed approach taken for that.
Why I point this out, alongside the adjunct fact that I’ve never read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is to say that I’m not 100% clear on what was going on in this film, or why it was going on. For this I am thankful, as I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to watch David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune without having read the book first, and it’s probably approximate to the level of confusion and wonder I felt during this.
As such I shan’t attempt to recap the four interconnecting romance plots with diversions into Fairyland (thanks Wikipedia) of the original that I presume are present in this, and instead just appreciate the spectacle of the striking character designs, the intricate animation, and Václav Trojan’s compositions.
I’m not sure I’d recommend this to anyone that doesn’t already have a working knowledge of the source material – my apologies for being an uncultured oaf – but it’s a striking film that shouldn’t take the fall for my ignorance.
Jason and the Argonauts
His inclusion here, when his work only made up a part of the films in which it featured, may be considered something of a fudge, but no discussion of stop-motion could be considered representative of the artform without the mention of Ray Harryhausen, whose pioneering special effects work and memorable characters meant that he was often the name most-associated with the films on which he worked, with the film’s actual director often relegated to second, or lower, place in the minds of the audience.
Therefore, including him in this podcast wasn’t difficult, but picking what to include was. Our initial thought was Clash of the Titans, probably the most famous film that he worked on, but I watched that again and, well, it’s not great (Sam Worthington’s performance in the terrible remake actually looking somewhat better in comparison, having now seen, as an adult, Harry Hamlin struggling to act more realistically than Harryhausen’s creations). There’s also not as much of Harryhausen’s work as in a lot of earlier stuff, and almost none at all in the first hour, plus, for a 1981 film, the style felt decidedly archaic.
That left any number of the Harryhausen films I remember from my childhood, usually broadcast on a Bank Holiday on BBC2, or Channel 4 on a Sunday morning, the first springing to mind being the Sinbad trilogy. However, that would involve watching and talking about films where any number of white people have big roles, particularly that of Sinbad, the sailor from Baghdad. And talking about Jane Seymour, as an Arab. And Tom Baker. As an Arab. So, no. Instead we chose 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, based on the Greek myth, one of Ray Harryhausen’s most popular films, and his personal favourite.
Pelias overthrows the Greek Kingdom of Thessaly, killing the king and two of his children. Before she dies, one of the children pleads for help from the goddess Hera (Honor Blackman, who I did not dislike, so that’s a remarkable first), and so Hera pledges to help the remaining child, Jason, to reclaim his kingdom when he is a man.
At such time, Hera puts Jason in Pelias’s path, though his identity is at that point unknown to Jason. Pelias is not similarly unaware of identity, though, and, knowing that he cannot kill Jason by his own hand, lest he invite his downfall, he encourages Jason in his plans to sail across the known world and capture the Golden Fleece of Colchis, a gift from the gods and symbol of kingship. To this end, Jason instructs the great shipwright Argus to build him a ship, and recruits a crew, among whom are Pelias’s son Acastus, a saboteur, and the legendary Heracles (though here going by Hercules, his Roman name, which is unimportant but if I didn’t point out the error I wouldn’t be me), and begins his voyage.
After that the film follows a fairly standard swords and sandals structure, but is set apart by a score by, surprisingly, Bernard Hermann, though weirdly it feels about 20 years out of place for a 1963 film, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures, most notable of which are the giant automaton, Talos, and the skeletal warriors that are commanded to defend the fleece.
Stop-motion special effects can often seem quaint, now, or even simply antiquated, but they were the only way to achieve a huge range of effects in film for a long time, and the best of them can be just as effective, or more, than modern techniques, in terms of entertainment. CGI has created wonderful worlds and characters, but too often is used too much, and our brains shut down. “There are eleventy-billion soldiers in this (curiously medieval-style) battle at the climax of Avengers: Endgame. Nope.”
One of the (many, many) things George Lucas doesn’t seem to understand about his own films is the appeal of something that we KNOW is really there. A butt hurt Lucas, on creating a fully-digital Yoda, moaned about the, well, moaning, and asked how a digital puppet was any different from a latex one. And, while we ought to be careful how much attention we pay to the complaints of Star Wars fans in general, here the moaning was justified, because it is different. Beyond the committed performances of Frank Oz and Mark Hammill that sold the character, Yoda was clearly a physical thing, he was there, and our brains know.
So it is with stop-motion special effects and, while there is a huge range of quality and effectiveness, the best stuff still works in context (and I don’t exaggerate when I say that, model though it is, ED-209 still has the power to put chills through me), and Jason and the Argonauts is a fine example. Certainly the matting can be a bit ropey and inconsistent, but I’d watch the fight between the Argonauts and the skeleton warriors over the slick-but-soulless end of a modern superhero movie any day of the week. It’s not all brilliant: the hydra and “grown man pushing polystyrene rocks as if he were a giant” don’t fare so well, but the Talos section is great, and Harryhausen’s design has the same quality as Star Wars’ C-3PO that of the neutral face that can cause us to read emotion into it where none exists, thanks to context (in this case a sadness and shock while the character dies). A very good entry point if you’re new to Ray Harryhausen, and wondered why the makers of Monsters, Inc. or Corpse Bride felt compelled to acknowledge him in their films.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
What’s this? What’s this? Well, I’m asking the questions around here, bud. Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King”, is fresh off another highly successful round of scares as Halloween draws to a close, but the plaudits from his fellow Halloween Town residents cannot bring him joy, just ennui. Going to a meditative stroll he stumbles across the wondrous Christmas Town, a jolly place ruled over by the dreaded Sandy Claws.
Greatly enamoured with the place, and finding it unfair that the elves get all the fun, he determines to take over the holiday this year, roping in the rest of the horrific residents of Nightmare Town to help as best they can given their limited understanding of the concept of a Christmas, so that ultimately goes as well as you might expect, as long as what you expect it is a great selections of songs, gags, and striking character design.
While Harry Selick directs, it’s styled as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, primarily because, well, look at it. This is pretty much what I’d expect an anthropomorphised inside of Tim Burton’s head to look like, and indeed he functions more as a “executive director” here than a traditional producer role. That said, it’s perhaps Danny Elfman who has the strongest voice in the film, both in terms of the soundtrack and more literally as the singing voice of Jack Skellington.
I don’t think I’ll belabour the point of this too much – these days this is widely, and in my opinion rightly, regarded as a classic, both Halloween and Christmas, and remains a greatly enjoyable watch with it’s inventive story, great voice and vocal performances, clever, funny songs and beautiful animation. I endorse this film.
Aardman Animations are one of the biggest names in stop-motion animation, particularly if you hail from these shores: from the Morph shorts that I mentioned earlier, to the mockumentary Creature Comforts and, of course, the world-famous duo of Wallace & Gromit. But for the Claymation standard bearer’s entry into this podcast we have selected their first feature-length film, 2000’s Chicken Run.
A pastiche of several POW-escape dramas, most notably The Great Escape and Escape of the Birdmen (along with numerous other film references), Chicken Run sees the poultry of Tweedy’s farm, led by Julia Sawalha’s Ginger, attempt to liberate themselves before a lack of egg production sees another prisoner sent to the pot.
The stakes are raised when Miranda Richardson’s fearsome Mrs. Tweedy decides to modernise the farm, increasing productivity and changing the output from eggs to chicken pies. Suddenly everyone’s necks are on the line, and escape becomes an even more pressing matter. Serendipity lands in their midst, in the form of Mel Gibson’s Rocky Rhodes, a flying rooster who, it seems, is the answer to their prayers (what their prayers are, or are to, is not covered, the theology of poultry being a matter Aardman decided not to address).
While Rocky recovers from an injury and teaches the chickens how to fly, others try to sabotage the fearsome new pie machine (which is absolutely not a recycled idea from A Close Shave, y’hear?) in order to buy them more time. Rocky may not be all he seems, however, and an alternative plan to build a plane (like a powered version of the Colditz Cock) is put into action.
After being so disappointed a couple of years ago by Early Man, and particularly because while watching that I found myself thinking “Aardman really has a distinctive style, and it’s this style, and only ever this style”, I was a little worried about watching Chicken Run again, fearing I would find the very familiar visuals wearisome. I needn’t have feared, though: while I maintain my criticism of contemporary Aardman for not trying something different, the biggest problem with Early Man was content, not style, and that’s not a problem that Chicken Run shares. Indeed, the instantly-recognisable look of Aardman characters is even a boon here, highlighting their great knack of creating humour and conveying emotion simply through the movement of those big, shiny eyeballs.
If there’s a problem with Chicken Run (beyond the problematic presence of Mel Gibson in anything, nowadays), it’s that it can skirt the line of being a reference comedy a little too often, which is the sort of thing that can really quickly date a film and make it stale. For the most part, though, it stays just on the right side of that, and can certainly be enjoyed without knowledge of the POW films to which it pays homage.
And that fairly well-worn POW story is given new life simply due to being played out by your dinner, with a good few chicken-based jokes in the mix. And while you’re enjoying it, a part of your brain will be marvelling at the enormous amount of work and technical skill involved, especially when several scenes have multiple moving characters, not to mention the action sequences. The filming of the animation produced one, ONE, minute of film per week. Stop-motion animation production is not for those in a hurry.
See, right, everything I said about The Nightmare Before Christmas? Basically that again. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk, and furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.
Well, if you must, in Corpse Bride, co-directed by yer Timothy Burton Esq and stop-motion expert and _Nightmare Before Christmas_Vet Mike Johnson, we learn the importance of not accidentally marrying a corpse when Victor, heir to a fishmongery empire, has a marriage arranged to Victoria, scion of the bankrupt aristocratic Everglots, the families looking for a trade of money and status, their children’s happiness be damned.
Unexpectedly, given the set up, the kids seem to quite like each other, however the pressure of the dress rehearsal on poor shy Victor sees him running off the the woods to recuperate and practise his vows, where said marital accident happens and he finds himself hitched to Emily, the titular Corpse Bride, and taken off the the underworld with its requisite spooky undead, which Victor seeks to escape.
Back in the land of the living, the shock of Victor’s disappearance is short lives, as the Everglots find an apparently suitable if obviously evil marriage candidate in the mysterious Lord Barkis, who may or may not have murdered his previous fiancé, who may or may not have been Emily, which may or may not be a spoiler, for which I may or may not be sorry.
Looking back at my review of some 15 years ago, I struck by how damn old I am, and also my comment that, essentially, I was expecting or wanting a longer film. Serving sizes having ballooned since then, I don’t feel the same way now, although I would add that I enjoy Corpse Bride so much that I certainly would not complain were there an additional quarter hour or so were it as good as the the rest of it, which, for the avoidance of doubt, is very good indeed.
It’s very much taking The Nightmare Before Christmas‘s ball and running with it, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. I shall fall back on my previously written assertion that Corpse Bride delivers a sharply written, punchy and funny script, good vocal performances and an abstract, fluid, effective animation style, and, as is something of a theme of this episode, recommend it highly.
Peter and the Wolf
Peter & the Wolf first came to my attention when it was given away free by Apple in one of their “iTunes 12 Days of Christmas” promotions, though as it was 4 days after they gave away the James Corden vehicle Lesbian Vampire Killers, you can imagine I wasn’t immediately hopeful.
This is the only short we’re covering on this episode, but I wanted to include it because, despite its unfortunate proximity in my mind to that other film, I did watch it, and I found it particularly striking, and also because it has no dialogue, and is instead, as you may have guessed from the name, an interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale.
If you’re not familiar with how that goes, Peter is a lonely young boy who lives with his grandfather in the forest, and whose only friend is a duck. Against his grandfather’s wishes, he leaves the safety of the fenced-in property one day to play on the frozen pond with the duck, another bird and his grandfather’s cat. Then a wolf, of the “big bad” variety, comes along, and gobbles the duck, fulfilling the purpose of both wolves and ducks. Peter feels somewhat differently, of course, what with the duck being his friend, so enlists the help of the bird to capture the wolf, to the amazement of the locals.
While this adaptation changes a few details, that’s more or less it: the narrative is not the main focus here, rather it is the compelling visuals and the synchronisation with Prokofiev’s music. And boy are the visuals good: it’s one of, if not the, best-looking stop-motion animations I’ve ever seen, with a level of detail probably only matched by Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. The character models are fantastic: identifiably Slavic, with extremely expressive faces and passably human-looking skin (while never trying to be a facsimile). The attention paid to the grandfather’s skin, and the wrinkles in his neck, is astonishing, with similar detail-level seen in the rusty doors of his Lada, amongst other things.
It’s just a beautiful thing, and if there’s a downside it’s simply that the visuals could be perhaps more tightly tied to the music. It’s made me very enthusiastic to check out more of the work of Se-ma-for, the Polish animation studio that produced Peter & the Wolf (of which there is, happily, a lot), and the British director, Suzie Templeton (of which there is, sadly, little).
Mary and Max
Mary and Max was, I believe, our shared favourite film seen at the EIFF back in 2009, and at the risk of spoiling the result of this review, nothing has happened in the intervening years to make me reconsider that opinion.
Starting in 1976, a neglected and bullied eight year old Mary Daisy Dinkle of Victoria, Australia starts a penfriend relation ship with a randomly selected name from a phone book, that being Max Jerry Horowitz, who has just as many problems, from his uncontrollable and unconventional eating habits to his inability to connect and understand people, which as it turns out is due to his later diagnosed Asperger syndrome.
This follows their ongoing correspondence, and the anxiety attacks they provoke in Max, over the course of Mary’s childhood and early adulthood. Both of their lives are eventful, in a quiet, realistic and slightly depressing sense, and makes for a very human, identifiable and sympathetic narrative.
Even in an episode where nearly everything we’re speaking of is quite densely packed with gags, this stands out as being extremely densely packed with gags both visual and auditory. It’s an exceedingly sharply scripted, er, script, with terrific deliveries from Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry Humphries in particular. This is perhaps an odd thing to say about a film that deals so heavily with neglect, addiction, loneliness, anxiety, and suicide, but that’s really the film’s genius.
I don’t think we need to re-legislate the “animation can be for adults and deal with adult themes” discussion again, but if anyone was wavering on the point I’d direct them to Mary and Max, which deals with said themes sensitively and highly entertainingly. In an episode full of films I enjoyed immensely, I enjoyed this immenselier. If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to.
The Little Prince
Like Jason and the Argonauts, Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince features stop-motion animation for only a portion of its running time, and, like Jason, it’s used as a special effect, but the effect, and why it’s special, is very different indeed.
Based on the world-famous novella Le Petit Prince, by French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince tells the story of a little girl (voiced in the English version by Mackenzie Foy), who we first meet as she tries to earn a place at the prestigious Werth Academy, whose goal is to make sure that children grow up to be “essential”. Failing her interview, her mother then relocates them to within the school’s catchment zone to force them to accept her, but to do this she has to buy a house whose affordability is, well, afforded, by its proximity to the rather ramshackle house next door.
In this house, the only one for miles around with any character, lives The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), an old, eccentric and lonely man, whose rather atypical form of greeting his new neighbours is to accidentally smash a hole in their wall with a propeller, after he attempts to start his biplane in his back garden. Most people settle for a basket of muffins.
The Mother isn’t overly-impressed by this, but the Little Girl’s curiosity finds her drawn to learn more about The Aviator, particularly after he sends her some pages (modelled after Saint-Exupéry’s own handwritten manuscript) of a story about a little Prince. She enters The Aviator’s garden, so different from the impeccably manicured but anodyne gardens of all the others in the neighbourhood, and befriends him, listening, enthralled, as he begins to tell her of the Prince, his lonely life on Asteroid B612, his love for a rose, and his adventures across space after he left her.
They become friends, and even accomplices, but the Little Girl’s (she has no other name) intensive study plan for beginning school starts to suffer (or, rather, be neglected entirely), until the friendship is forcibly ended by her mother after a run-in with the police.
The everyday world of the girl is, in the first two acts, deliberately boring: 3D computer-animated in a competent but unremarkable way, indistinguishable, except in the environs of The Aviator’s house, from a hundred other films. But the world of The Prince is where the magic lies, a beautifully-realised stop-motion interpretation of Saint-Exupéry’s distinctive illustrations, utterly charming and wonderfully tactile, even more so thanks to its juxtaposition with the super-clean computer animation. Things are more real, and have more texture, in the imagination, particularly that of a child.
That juxtaposition works well, and it’s a lovely and charming film, but the downside is that the whole film isn’t in the Prince’s world, as I would love to have spent the whole running time in stop-motion. It’s beautiful, and if you’re familiar with the book you’ll see just how much of the essence of the author’s illustrations the puppets have, while being their own, much more substantial, thing.
We’ve talked before about the casting of big, or at least big-ish, name actors in voiceover roles, and how it isn’t necessary and is often ill-advised, as voice acting is a different skill from acting to camera, but here, at least, Jeff Bridges is a wonderful choice for The Aviator, with Paul Rudd also working well as the older version of the Prince (I wonder if there’s a little inside joke there, too, in casting Paul Rudd to voice a character who at first never ages, and then after that only a little). The other bigger names, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro and Marion Cotillard, fare less well, though that’s a lot to do with having so little to do, Cotillard in particular. Rachel McAdams does a fine job as the mum, but she doesn’t bring any extra depth or interest to the character that a capable voiceover artist wouldn’t have done.
Ma vie de Courgette
We spoke about this on an episode back in July 2017, so I’ll perhaps give an even more hastily abridged version than normal, but we liked it very much back then and at the risk of spoiling the result of this review, nothing has happened in the intervening years to make me reconsider that opinion.
Taken into a children’s home after accidentally killing his drunken layabout of a mother, Icare, preferring to be called Courgette, struggles to fit in alongside the his fellow children that the world has damaged in various heart-rending ways. However, an already disrupted life is further beturmoiled when Camille arrives, and steals Courgette’s heart. Metaphorically. It’s not literally heart-rending.
Claude Barras has picked an interesting and unique style for this animation, perhaps most closely resembling the drawings the film’s subjects might make themselves, but, of course rather more beautifully realised.
Rather like Mary and Max, it despite the style it ploughs some dark places for themes and comes out much the stronger for it, particularly when leavened with a great deal of humour and humanity. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but this is a really good film and I recommend it highly.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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