The film that made Christmas creepy.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “Jack, you make wounds ooze and flesh crawl!” (It’s a compliment.)
Defining moment: The opening song, gloriously and ghoulishly upbeat.
It all started in 1982, with a poem written by Tim Burton, then a humble animator at Disney. A year later, Burton pitched A Nightmare Before Christmas to his bosses as a TV special. But the powers that be thought the idea “too weird,” and the project went on the back burner until Beetlejuice and Batman made Burton a hot property.
Too weird? Not a bit. Burton’s graveyard fairy tale is a good old-fashioned musical, with song-and-dance numbers that would get Gene Kelly tapping his feet. It’s the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who discovers a portal to Christmas Town and likes what he sees—children throwing snowballs instead of heads. No one is dead. Jack crafts a plan to kidnap Father Christmas, or Sandy Claws, as he calls him.
Directed by stop-motion maestro Henry Selick from Burton’s story, the movie took 15 animators almost three years to make. Working with more than 227 puppets, they completed just one minute of the film a week. That translates into mind-boggling detail, right down to the mayor’s spider tie. The dialogue is deliciously macabre, the storytelling dizzyingly inventive and the characters touchingly sweet. A twisted delight.—Cath Clarke
An idiosyncratic auteur gets animated with this stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel.
Director: Wes Anderson
Best quote: “Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”
Defining moment: Fox and friends come face-to-face with a mysterious black wolf.
It’s tough being a wild animal. Not that the witty, snappily dressed Mr. Fox (George Clooney) likes to complain about his days making life hell for his human nemeses, farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean). It’s in his nature, after all. But when Fox’s wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), informs him that they have a pup on the way, our vulpine protagonist realizes he has to tame the beast within. Good luck.
There’s nothing docile about Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation. Anderson’s dioramic visuals and pithy plotting translate perfectly to a cartoon world. You’re captivated right from the first gorgeously autumnal shot of Mr. Fox leaning against a tree, an image accompanied, in a very Andersonian touch, by the Wellingtons’ 1954 tune “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
As with all of the director’s films, potent emotions underlie the comic-strip surface: Both Fox and his sullen son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), must come to terms with their instinctual ambitions, which tend to clash with their everyday responsibilities. (The heart breaks when Felicity claws her husband’s furry face in frustration at his blithely destructive impulses.) As the foxes find their way of life increasingly threatened, the question arises: How do you use your nature to your advantage? The answers aren’t easy, but it should be clear that Anderson isn’t out to cater to anyone except the audience he knows so well.—Keith Uhlich
This Lewis Carroll adaptation, from a brilliant Czech surrealist, is too wild and wonderful for kids.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “Alice thought to herself, Now you will see a film…made for children…perhaps.”
Defining moment: The Mad Hatter’s tea party: hilarious, anarchic and a fabulous example of Svankmajer’s ability to make the impossible seem absolutely real.
Jan Svankmajer’s first feature is a characteristically inventive but rigorous account of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, faithful in spirit to the original while remaining conspicuously true to his own highly distinctive brand of surrealism. Blending live action (Kristyna Kohoutová, who plays the heroine, is the only human in the film) with various forms of stop-motion animation, Svankmajer creates a wonderland notable for its bizarre dreamlike logic and its grotesque beauty: Skeletal creatures scuttle and steaks crawl while Alice, no stranger to thoughts of cruel whimsy, changes size and becomes her own doll. It’s brilliantly imaginative, bitingly witty and fittingly Freudian. This is no saccharine celebration of innocence, but a foray into the darker recesses of childhood fears and desires. And therefore, perhaps not a film for children.—Geoff Andrew
An eccentric inventor and his loyal canine companion hunt a mutant bunny.
Directors: Steve Box and Nick Park
Best quote: “I’m sorry, Gromit—I know you’re doing this for my own good, but the fact is I’m just crackers about cheese.”
Defining moment: Gromit follows the oversize bunny in a vehicular chase that goes below ground.
British animator Nick Park made his name with a series of award-winning stop-motion shorts featuring Wallace, an inventor whose creations often go awry, and Gromit, his devoted dog. In their Oscar-winning feature debut (a coproduction between Park’s Aardman Animations and DreamWorks), the two are hired to protect their town’s vegetable patches from ravenous rabbits. Wallace tries to brainwash the bunnies with his latest creation (the Mind Manipulation–O-Matic), but instead ends up creating a bigger foe—a towering were-rabbit that emerges at every full moon. The canvas is a bit bigger than in Aardman’s previous excursions: Celebrities like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter lend their vocal talents, and there are a few beautifully bombastic action scenes. Yet the endearingly handmade qualities of Park’s shorter works are still fully evident, especially in Gromit’s priceless silent reactions to his human master’s frequent obliviousness.—Keith Uhlich
Handcrafted silhouettes captivate in the first-ever animated feature.
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Best quote: It’s silent, so you’ll have to provide your own dialogue.
Defining moment: The good witch takes on the evil sorcerer in a shape-shifting smackdown.
Given the immense visual sophistication of today’s computer-aided animation, is there still any point in watching a silent film where paper cutouts move across illuminated sheets of glass? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes, since this fairy-tale adventure from Germany’s Lotte Reiniger is no fusty historical artifact, but a mesmerizing viewing experience, precisely because (unlike modern animation) we can see the handiwork involved in creating the exquisite silhouettes peopling this classic Arabian Nights tale. There’s a flying horse, a dashing prince, an evil sorcerer, a damsel in serious distress, and even a special appearance by Aladdin and his “wunderlampe.” It’s all rendered in filigree detail that brings the time-honored story to life. There’s not quite the seamless movement we’ve come to expect these days, but when Reiniger fills the screen with spiky winged demons, the sheer craft on display is genuinely breathtaking.—Trevor Johnston
Aardman’s first feature applied their signature style to a tale of farmed chickens trying to break free.
Directors: Peter Lord and Nick Park
Best quote: “All my life flashed before my eyes.… It was really boring.”
Defining moment: When our feathered friends finally fly a homemade mechanical bird over the fence.
Britain’s Aardman Animations had been going since the early 1970s, and had won three Oscars for its short films “Creature Comforts,” “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” (the latter two featuring Wallace and Gromit), by the time that the company’s founder, Peter Lord, and his collaborator Nick Park codirected their first feature, Chicken Run, in 2000. A feathery spin on The Great Escape, the film showcased the same clay animation Aardman had employed to bring the much-loved Morph character to life on British TV in the 1970s and ’80s. Only now their budget was bigger, they were working with DreamWorks and Pathé, and the voices included Mel Gibson as an arrogant American chicken among an ensemble of winged prisoners in Yorkshire desperate to escape a vicious farm and its chicken-pie machine. The Aardman style—amusing, down-to-earth, homey dialogue coupled with simple, oversize features—survived the company’s first brush with Hollywood.—Dave Calhoun
A one-man, multidiscipline labor of love.
Director: Chris Sullivan
Best quote: “I do not suggest using ashes as fertilizer—these bitter urns of charred memories soak into the soil and leave a blackened taste on the lips.”
Defining moment: A scratchy, pencil-sketch scene of loss, as the authorities come to take away little Lydia and Victor Blue.
Surely the most obscure film on our list, Consuming Spirits is the result of more than a decade’s work for writer, director, animator, musician and voice artist Chris Sullivan and his small team. Running 136 minutes and encompassing more than 230,000 individual frames, this epic achievement combines cutout, stop-frame and pencil sketches and a beautiful soundtrack steeped in mountain folk. But as with any great animated movie, it’s the emotional content that’s most rewarding. Set in a small Pennsylvania town, this is a poetic, downbeat tale of three characters united by disappointment, alcohol and a haunted past. Thanks to an extremely limited U.S. release, Consuming Spirits is little known even within the animation community, but almost everyone who voted for it here made it their number-one choice.—Tom Huddleston
A wise, funny Claymation tale of lives lived on the edge of society.
Director: Adam Elliot
Best quote: “Butts are bad because they wash out to sea, and fish smoke them and become nicotine-dependent.”
Defining moment: Max wins the lottery and uses his prize money to buy a lifetime supply of chocolate.
This big-kids-and-adults-only bleak comedy is the only feature to date from Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot, who previously made well-regarded short films, including 2003’s “Harvie Krumpet.” Set in the 1970s and subverting Claymations usual cuddliness, it tells of an unhappy suburban child, Mary, who, after leafing through the phone book, inappropriately (or so it seems) becomes pen pals with Max, a depressed New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s almost entirely in black and white—or at least black, white and beige—although there’s the odd flash of color, like the crude lipstick worn by Mary’s grotesque, unloving mother. A celebration of outsiders, this offers comedy as well as tears, as we track Mary and Max over the decades; ultimately, it manages to be both rude and strangely endearing. The voices couldn’t be more appropriate: Barry Humphries narrates, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is Max and Toni Collette is Mary as a grown-up.—Dave Calhoun
Wonderfully madcap early-1960s experimental piece.
Director: Harry Smith
Best quote: This is all about the imagery. Words are too pedestrian, man.
Defining moment: A machine that allows you to play a game of tennis with a baby.
Uncompromisingly experimental, U.S. filmmaker Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic existed in various versions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before settling down into this final 1962 cut. Scrappy and fiercely DIY in its aesthetic and produced under the auspices of Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives, this black-and-white film uses stop-motion animation techniques to tell stories with roughly cutout photographs. In terms of story, maybe Smith himself best characterizes his avant-garde, surrealist approach: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Got that? The film’s audio consists only of sound effects, and it’s become a popular choice for screenings with a live score.—Dave Calhoun
This mythical adventure provides the ultimate showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-frame animation.
Director: Don Chaffey
Best quote: “The gods are cruel! In time, men will learn to live without them.”
Defining moment: Sword-wielding skeletons rise from the turf to attack our band of brothers.
Generations of younger viewers remain convinced that Ray Harryhausen possessed the magical power to bring model figurines to life, simply on the strength of this ancient-Greek adventure pic he himself regarded as his finest achievement. No one really remembers the plot, which involves Todd Armstrong’s frankly wooden Jason and his brawny crew taking to the seas to bring back the fabled Golden Fleece and thus ascend the throne of Thessaly. But the stop-frame-animation highlights are unforgettable—from fierce winged harpies to the bronze giant Talos and the snapping seven-headed Hydra. Best of all, though, is a battle with sword-swinging skeletons, raised from the earth to take on our heroes. The human and animated elements are uncannily integrated in a way that CGI never quite makes so tactile. They’re alive!—Trevor Johnston