In some countries, animation is appreciated as serious art, but in the West, it’s often viewed as the domain of kids. Similarly, stop-motion animation is often dismissed as clunky but charming, thanks to TV’s “Gumby,” “Davey and Goliath” and Rankin/Bass specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Luckily, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences animation branch know better. Since the Oscar category was created in 2001, they’ve nominated a wide range of sophisticated films, including hand-drawn, CG and oil-painted animation— and, of course, stop-motion.
Laika Studios has been Oscar-nominated for its first four films, all stop-motion — “Coraline” (2009), “ParaNorman” (2012) “The Boxtrolls” (2014) and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016). Their track record is likely to continue with the 2019 “Missing Link.”
The film, set in 1886, centers on adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) who is trying to help Mr. Link (Zack Galifianakis) find others of his species. Writer-director Chris Butler says of Mr. Link, “He’s the latest in a long line of soulful primates, including ‘King Kong’ and ‘Mighty Joe Young.’”
Though “Kong” was a huge box office hit, it received zero Oscar-nominations; however, “Mighty Joe Young” won the 1949 Academy Award for special effects.
Growing up in England, Butler says, “I was a huge Ray Harryhausen fan,” citing “Clash of the Titans” and “Jason and the Argonauts” in particular.
Butler wanted to be an animator, assuming it would be in 2D. But after years of creating storyboards, he changed career goals while working on “Corpse Bride.” He realized stop-motion was the perfect way to express his creativity, saying, “It was such a great experience that I never looked back.”
“Missing Link” is beautiful, heartfelt and ambitious. “Every time we make a stop-motion movie at Laika, we try to do things that haven’t been done before,” says Butler. Every scene in “Link” featured a new locale, with 110 sets covering 65 locations, including the Himalayas, a jungle in India and the Pacific Northwest. That’s a lot for a 93-minute movie: It’s by far the biggest stop-motion film ever.
Some people think stop-motion is a rarefied art form, but it’s as old as film itself: Georges Méliès experimented with it. Butler adds, “The movies that I grew up with have stop motion; one of my favorites is ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ Look at those Walkers — that’s the magic of moviemaking, with audiences being compelled and not even questioning how it’s done.” (The film won a special Oscar for its visual effects.) Butler praises the 450 artists who worked on “Missing Link.” It was a five-year journey, with one year each of planning, preproduction and post — and a whopping two years of production.
There seems to be a 21st century boom in stop motion. When the 2005 “Corpse Bride” was Oscar-nominated, the other two animation contenders were “Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (which won) and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” In other words, two of the three were stop motion.
That was bested by 2012, when Oscar’s list of five nominees included three in stop-motion: “Frankenweenie,” “ParaNorman” and “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”