12 Essential Stop-Motion Animated Movies

stop-motion animated movies

(Welcome to Let’s Get Animated!, a column that spotlights the best of film animation. In this edition: here are the most essential stop-motion animated movies.)

Stop-motion animation is largely seen as a quaint relic. An animation style that has roots in the earliest days of cinema — the first reported film to use stop-motion animation was Vitagraph’s lost 1897 film Humpty Dumpty Circus. Stop-motion would remain at the cutting edge of movie-making, central to special effects used in live-action movies like Star Wars, and winning mainstream popularity at the height of the animation renaissance in the ‘90s.

Stop-motion animation is the manipulation of any physical object — ranging from paper cutouts, puppets, Lego bricks, and yes, clay. It’s one of the most tedious formats you can imagine, requiring hours to set up a simple one-minute shot. But despite the domination of CG animation in the past decade, stop-motion is here to stay. Just look to this year’s Berlinale darling, Isle of the Dogs, and the latest Aardman film Early Man.

Here are the most essential stop-motion animated movies.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas is the seminal stop-motion animated movie. And it’s the film most people immediately go to when they think of stop-motion. Directed by stop-motion visionary Henry Selick and produced and conceived by Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a 1993 musical that follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town who becomes obsessed with Christmas after he accidentally stumbles upon Christmas Town. To share his newfound fascination with Christmas, Jack kidnaps Santa Claus and brings him to Halloween Town, upsetting the entire fabric of the holidays.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was a passion project from Burton, first pitched to Disney as a TV special, but rejected for being too “weird.” But after the success of his equally stop-motion short film Vincent in 1982, he got the OK from Disney. And after nearly three years of painstaking production and 227 puppets, The Nightmare Before Christmas was released. The result: A delightfully macabre fantasy that toes the line between ghoulish and gorgeous.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings may be one of the most beautiful stop-motion films in recent memory. Inspired by the style of Japanese origami and ink wash painting, the 2016 film is a unique blend of clay models, 3D printing, and paper. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious stop-motion animated movies in the past decade. Kubo and the Two Strings hails from the innovative animation studio Laika, which has proven to be an exciting new pioneer in the dusty old genre.

Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic fable that follows a young one-eyed storyteller named Kubo who lives in hiding from his evil aunts and the Moon King. Every day, Kubo wields his magical shamisen (a traditional Japanese string instrument) to bring origami figures to life in thrilling tales that entertain the local villagers. But one day, Kubo accidentally stays out after dark despite his mother’s pleas, and attracts the attention of his witchy aunts, who attack him and kill his mother. Forced to go on the run, Kubo embarks on a mission to defeat the Moon King. An astonishingly original narrative that lavishly plays homage to the Japanese culture that inspired it, Kubo is an awe-inspiring movie that tests the limits of stop-motion animation.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Not only is The Adventures of Prince Achmed the oldest surviving stop-motion animated movie, it’s the oldest surviving animated film in history. The 1926 German animated fairy tale by animation legend Lotte Reiniger predates Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by 10 years. And it doesn’t get enough credit.

The enchanting silent film is the pioneer of silhouette animation, a technique invented by Reiniger that involves manipulating cardboard cutouts and thin sheets of lead under a camera. It’s not dissimilar from the ancient Indonesian practice of Wayang shadow puppetry.

Loosely based on stories from One Thousand and One NightsPrince Achmed follows a dashing hero on a flying horse who braves all manner of obstacles — witches, demons, and even Aladdin — to win a princess’ heart. It’s a simple, almost seductive fairy tale brought to life with dainty, intricate silhouettes in an utterly mesmerizing film.

Wallace and Gromit & The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Aardman Animations’ name is synonymous with Claymation, and it’s largely thanks to their most beloved franchise, Wallace & Gromit. Before the goofy inventor-dog pair got the feature film treatment, they were the stars of popular short films that turned them into British cultural icons.

Aardman is known for its exaggerated and warm stop-motion clay animation style — as if comic strip characters had simply walked off the page. And 2005’s Wallace and Gromit & The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is the epitome of that style. The movie follows the eccentric cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his intelligent, mute dog Gromit as they fend off a growing infestation of rabbits before their village’s annual vegetable competition. But an invention goes awry, and shenanigans ensue. Wallace and Gromit is a vaudeville comedy meets newspaper comic strip, and a must-see for any stop-motion fanatic.

Fantastic Planet

This psychedelic French film uses cutout animation to tell a truly otherworldly story. Fantastic Planet is a 1973 science-fiction film adapts Stefan Wul’s novel Oms en serie, which tells the story of a distant planet where humans are a lesser, diminutive species on a planet ruled by ethereal beings called Traags. Humans are a nuisance at worst, pets at best to the giant Traags, who tower hundreds of feet over the humans that they call “Oms,” a homophone of homme (the French word for “man”).

The story of oppression and the power of technology recalls sci-fi epics like Dune and Planet of the Apes, but the avant-garde art style of the cutouts is more along the lines of Salvador Dali. The 71-minute film is truly a trip that could not have been replicated in traditional animation.

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