I await with trepidation the latest Tim Burton movie, Frankenweenie, a feature-length adaptation of Burton’s own short from ’84. Word is it’s not actually as bad as everything else Burton has churned out these past 15 or 20 years. Which isn’t necessarily saying much.
The only reason I want to see it is because it’s made in stop-motion, an animation technique I fell in love with as a kid. Recent stop-motion movies haven’t excited me as much as those from way back when, owing to their all being Hollywood kids’ movies, which no matter how often reviewers tell me are “great for adults too!”, aren’t. Still, I like to check them out, just to watch inanimate objects come to life with that unique stop-motion movement.
My favorite recent stop-motion movie is a short called Chainsaw Maid. If you like zombies, it’s the best thing ever:
For this week’s double feature, we go way back in time to two of the greatest stop-motion movies ever made. That is, movies featuring stop-motion. Back in them days no one had the time or money to make feature-length stop-motion movies. Stop-motion was what CGI is today, a means to make impossible creatures come to life. But unlike so much CGI, stop-motion, when done by masters like Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien, is full of personality and life.
KING KONG (’33)
Fay Wray famously said that the first thing director Merian C. Cooper said to her about King Kong was, “You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.”
Kong was a huge hit when it first came out, and then again and again as it was re-released over the years (every time with new pieces snipped out by censors). It’s still just as tall and dark as it was then, plus you get to see the entire movie as it was first seen in ’33 (though still lacking the fabled giant spider scene, cut out after the first test screening, alas).
Cooper worked for years to get the story right. He was intent on making it a fast-paced, thrilling movie, full of effects and locations people had never seen before. This he did. What’s amazing is how well the movie stands up today. The effects are of course primitive, sure, but they’re full of life and personality. Is there anything better than Kong fighting a t-rex? The stop-motion brings Kong to life in a way the fanciest special-effects fail to do in both the ‘76 remake and Peter Jackson’s awful, bloated mess from ’05. No one has improved on the original in any way at all.
Willis O’Brien is the man behind the stop-motion. He’d previously made The Lost World in ’25, which functioned as a great warm-up for what he’d do with Kong. And what he does is he makes Kong a character as real and personable and emotionally involving as any human actor. You feel Kong’s pain, his love, his anger. It’s really one of the greatest feats of animation in the history of film.
King Kong is one of those old movies you fear will be slow and silly. Then you watch it and get why it’s as beloved as it is. It’s more thrilling and engaging than just about anything you’re likely to see in a theater anytime soon.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (’58)
Ray Harryhausen made the best movie monsters of all time. No matter how strange or evil a creature he was animating, he filled it with love, giving each one a personality, a history, a sense of having its own long story you wish you could follow.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the first of a trilogy of Sinbad movies, and by far the best. With that said, this is a late ‘50s Hollywood fantasy film. Which is to say, it’s a bit goofy and stilted. But I have faith that you can get past that and enjoy the creativity.
Harryhausen called his process Dynamation for the first time here, because Hollywood loved fancy names back then. Some of Harryhausen’s best monsters and scenes are in 7th Voyage, including most famously the Cyclops and the Dragon, whose fight scene at the end is the best monster fight of all time. I won’t tell you who wins, but when the loser dies, you’ll be surprised at how sad you feel.
Also great is the dance of the half-woman/half-snake, and the fight with the skeleton, which fight was so popular that when Harryhausen made Jason And The Argonauts, he had Jason fight seven skeletons, in another of the most famous stop-motion scenes of all time.
Bernard Herrmann, whose music you know from many Hitchcock movies, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Taxi Driver and countless others, wrote the score, and it’s one of his best.
Monsters fighting. The best reason ever for the existence of filmed entertainment. Enjoy!