With The Little Prince on Netflix these days and Kubo and the Two Strings out soon enough, stop motion is making a comeback. You know what that means.
Despite the proliferation of 3D stop motion animated features in the past two decades, the scorchingly alien Fantastic Planet is even more otherworldly today than it was in 1973. Perhaps the vocal reticence in society to accept the artistic value of 2D animation (seen as primitive) only advances the skepticism for stop motion into today’s computer animation world, but the idea of a cut-out style 2D paper-craft animated feature these days feels like heresy. Like an outgrowth of another planet of animation history, Fantastic Planet feels almost sentient in its discrepancy from the status quo, defiant in its proudly primitive nature, and spellbinding in its sincere swelling of emotion out of the most observational of aesthetics.
The primeval pitch-black picture-book style is the perfect corollary to the elemental fable about escape and oppression, with the post-Terry Gilliam handicraft surrealism infusing this story of the Draags and the Oms with a jittery, hallucinogenic, demented storybook vibe. And with Fantastic Planet, vibe is the word, if you couldn’t already tell from the casual namedropping of Draags and Oms in a decidedly baked (but never over-baked) forgotten animation classic. More than a mere Gilliam photocopy, Roland Topor’s (travelling companion of Alejandro Jodorowsky) design work and Rene Laloux’s directing isn’t walking on eggshells like it’s trying to hide its alienating aesthetic; the film moves well beyond mere irreverence and into downright impiety, defilement, and beautiful sacrilege. Watching the story of the bulbous cyan-tinted oppressors, Draags, and their human-looking pets the Oms, the perpetually askew animation is no ornamentation but the batty backbone of this tale devoid of an equilibrium point.
Mostly, the film’s bare-bones, skeletal-structure style of paper cutouts jerking around in stilted motion suggests an ossified stiffness to this world that circumscribes motion and imagination and embodies the static, unemancipated freakishness of the repressed world in the creaking visuals themselves. The film harnesses the ancient look to the aesthetic, suddenly shifting between positions rather than gracefully sliding between them with granular minutiae, to unmoor the very idea that the life lived by these characters is anything close to fully featured or energized. All in all, it suggests life thrown into jeopardy, lived on a track between preordained, unadorned set points rather than one actually imbued with the quotidian detail and capacity for fluidity that typically forms the underwire of life itself.
It might be easy to throw Fantastic Planet under a bus by equating it to a sort of bizarre reality-forfeiture, a private experiment for the filmmakers. But this rotted expression of discordance and despondency is also broadly polemical and even populist in its habit of serving as a receptacle for the human desire to escape an inhospitable world; the narrative, about an Om with insider knowledge of the Draags who can help Oms liberate themselves, is no intellectual circle-jerk. Evoked in rapturously inhospitable mise en scene where stuttering, laconically unstable, only semi-motile vegetation in the land try to energize and escape from the negative space in the screen, the film suggests freakish half-realized movement unable to truly overtake emptiness. Fittingly, the film is alive with this sense of trying to move away from one’s trapped existence but ultimately being unable to fully fracture one’s connection to the barren ground of one’s roots, their social lot in life.
Such deeply precognitive, sensory experiences that unite humans the world over are the film’s lexicon. The outré design, accompanied by Alain Goraguer’s retro-future acid funk/prog rock score of warbles and serrated, singed musical bleeps, open a Pandora’s box of style. It’s got that hand-crafted ‘70s feel, but it’s also timelessly devoid of cultural markers of specificity that would reduce the parable to a quick cut-out metaphor for a specific time period’s crises; instead, it suggests film as a state of mind for any society with an aspiration for liberation.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
An animated mongrel of whimsy and ghoulishness, Henry Selick’s Tim Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas is, despite not being directed by Burton, arguably the acme of his aesthetic. It’s also, perhaps unfortunately, the beginning of a slide into the point where that aesthetic would run amok over the soul of his films, mitigating them, rather than sliding into that soul and massaging it gracefully. The rumbling, off-kilter evocation of memories past, so heartfelt even in their deranged fancy in the early Burton vehicles, spilled over into a semi-toxic downward spiral throughout the ‘90s where aesthetic purpose keeled into a kind of aesthetic holiday. Judicious consideration of the reason for the aesthetic more or less floundered under an unwavering drive for hollow, ephemeral mania. The Nightmare Before Christmas is ultimately a minor delight of warped wickedness and haunted house glee, although it’s also slightly too aware of, and busy with, its aesthetic for its own good.
Of course, it wouldn’t be until the turn of the century where the diminishing returns actually warped into actual misfires, and slightly fleeting aspirations aside, The Nightmare Before Christmas is hardly a failure. Selick is more of less playing Burton underling here, but their combined talents resurrect a slightly twisted take on the old-school holiday special with a sly, whimsical sense of classicism; for all the hullabaloo about this as the “too dark for Disney” production, it’s also a defiantly innocent, old-fashioned Christmas special. Following Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town who rules with a rotted-out iron fist of malaise, depression, and disinterest in his town’s namesake holiday, the film cascades along with his mind as he suddenly kindles with an awareness of the joy of Christmas. The film is more situational than narratively-oriented, but it delights in mixing and matching holiday – and thus imaginative aesthetic – conventions as Skellington blazes past Halloween Town with his newly discovered infatuation with Christmas, his life ignited by the spirit of good cheer.
From there, the stop motion aesthetic gets in on the fun in moments of spindly whimsy-terror like Skellington’s jerky, all-legs movement, where his oblique angles counterpoise the graceful glee of the Christmas world he falls in love with (they’re obviously more at home in the expressionistic, all-corners Halloween Town). Although the aesthetic is a little robotic in its deployment of holiday styles without ever truly awakening them toward any more notable goal, the spidery fantasia of sheer craft is always amusing and fitfully inspired in the way it intermingles the morose, the morbid, and the ebullient.
Compared to future stop motion animation like, say, Aardman Animation’s feature length films or Selick’s own masterpiece Coraline, Nightmare is reticent to actually explore the innately material, tangible nature of stop motion clay-mation and its frame-by-frame twitchiness. The sense here is a smoothing over of some of these unique features of the medium, almost hiding them; compared to say, the 1988 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, titled Alice, a film I am sure Burton can’t but worship, Nightmare is unwilling to explore the truly freakish nature of stop motion as a malleable perversion of real world material that questions, or defies, the very fluidity with which movement is supposed to occur. Still, these are the differences between masterpieces and carnival ride amusements, and issues like the minor Danny Elfman tunes (only the introductory song matches the dreaded mystique of his greatest material) are minor setbacks rather than deadening albatrosses. Mostly, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a work of modest achievement, but this graveyard shift fairy tale is achievement nonetheless.