After a year without a major stop-motion film, 2018 will start the year off with two, which might turn out to be some of the year’s best.
Stop motion films can be a rare species. Often taking several years in the making, it’s not unusual for a year to go by without any, or for there only to be one that enters the mainstream sphere. But for two to arrive so early in the year is something special to get pumped about.
Early Man, which is the newest creation from Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame, will release in February, while Wes Anderson’s newest feature, Isle of Dogs, releases in March, and based on the trailers, both look as if they’re going to be pretty great. Considering it’s been a good while since either filmmaker has released an animated film, the buzz around these right now is strong. And especially considering Anderson and Park’s history with stop-motion films, it can be sure that these two long-awaited movies will not disappoint.
While Wes Anderson has only previously done one other animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) it could hardly be labeled a flop. Stemming from Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s book, the film was a success with critics and audiences and remains some of Anderson’s best work. His style and sensibilities within a stop-motion film about foxes worked so well, it’s clear that one of the reasons Isle of Dogs looks so appealing is because of the want for more Wes Anderson animation. However, though the film is stop-motion animated, it seems that’s where the similarities between the two end. Well that, and of course the A-list cast of voices in the film.
The story centers around a young boy searching for his missing dog, who travels to an island where all the dogs in a Japanese city have been placed after a canine flu outbreak. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson used Dahl’s material to bring a story to life, but Isle of Dogs is all Anderson, with the film having been written and directed by him. And as he told ARTE Cinema, his two main inspirations for the film are the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials and the work of Akira Kurosawa, with heavier influences deriving from the latter. So in terms of the target audience for the film, it could swing either way, with the movie ultimately landing somewhere in between a story for children and a story for adults, which is how so many animated films today work anyways. The rating for the film has not yet been released but it will be interesting to see when it is.
The visuals shown in the trailer make it clear already that the decision to animate with stop-motion goes beyond just an aesthetic choice. The Rankin-Bass influences make the film look like something so familiar yet distant at the same time, and since the story is set to take place 20 years in the future, the animation looks like it will work at giving off some futuristic feels.
Before then, however, stop-motion legend Nick Park will take us way back in time to a primitive era with Early Man, following a caveman named Dug as he fights against the coming of the Bronze Age. The film looks absolutely adorable and hilarious, something for kids and adults to enjoy, and anyone who likes the world of Wallace and Gromit will be sure to probably love Early Man. But beyond this, the world has hardly seen a stop-motion auteur like Nick Park.
At this point, Park is a veteran animator, going back to 1989, when his first animated half-hour short A Grand Day Out starring Wallace and Gromit, made its debut and was later nominated for an Academy Award in the Animated Short category. The film ended up losing to none other than Park’s other short Creature Comforts, which was another claymation film created by Park and produced by Aardman Animation. For a film student fresh out of school, however, having been nominated twice and awarded by the Academy on what was practically his first official projects is pretty remarkable. That being said, it’s not as if it was a quick and easy process. The shorts were about 6 years in the making, and Park was able to attain access to the resources to make them after ambitiously approaching the founders of Aardman Animation when they hosted a talk at his school. He landed a job with them creating commercials and in return, they offered him the resources and studio space. Before even all of this, Park had long been a fan of animation since his youth, often sketching characters and coming up with small captions and stories to go along with them quite a while before A Grand Day Out and Creature Comforts were completed.
After his initial achievements, he continued to work with Aardman Animation on films such as A Close Shave, Chicken Run, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with his most recent work being on Shaun the Sheep, a series not directed by him, but one which he helped produce and write.
Now to see him returning with a fun and original film is very exciting. Early Man is not without its star-studded cast either, with voices from Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, and Maisie Williams, who are sure to bring these characters to life in a way that only they can. And with the story being about cave people and cave culture mixed in with the transition to the Bronze Age is sure to be a delight. For much of the modern age we’re currently in, humans have always seemed to have this lingering fascination with the Stone Age, probably because for the most part, it’s up to our imagination to decipher what it was like, which is what makes it a perfect setting for a film. But as our Jacob Oller notes, writers often aren’t sure exactly how to approach making a film about cavepeople.
Early Man, on the other hand, seems to know exactly what kind of story it wants to tell. In a Q&A from 2017, Park addressed the main reason why he wanted to do the movie, with it really having to do mostly with his fascination with cave culture and the medium itself. He says:
“I always loved the idea of cavemen. Cavemen and women. And I feel like this medium, you know, clay, somehow really suits cavemen, and a lot of humor comes out of that medium.”
So much like Isle of Dogs, telling this story through stop-motion appears to go much farther than simply a stylistic choice. Even though animation and claymation are most all of Park’s work, picking how to utilize that art form still requires an immense amount of thought. For Anderson, who primarily works in live action, it appears the story led him to the medium, and for Park, part of the process appears to be what stories the medium leads him to. Each has their own ways of approaching story and animation, so getting both films back to back will be a fun experience. Plus they are both fresh, original projects, which make them all the more exciting.
Aside from all of the enthusiasm surrounding each filmmaker’s work though, stop-motion films, in general, are personally just fascinating to watch. Thinking about the amount of time it takes along with all of the effort and patience that are incorporated into each film let alone each character is really interesting. The pre-production and production periods take an incredible amount of time. Like any film, there is scriptwriting and storyboarding, but often sketches will start years before, which then lead to the creation of the scenery and characters, whichever way is chosen to do that. All animation is difficult and takes lots of time, but with stop-motion and claymation specifically, the part of it that involves bringing these animated characters to life makes it all the more time-consuming. And with film technology advancing rapidly all the time, often stop-motion feels like a nice art form that takes animated work back to its roots, which we can all appreciate. Although, stop-motion animation, or any animation for that matter, could hardly be called simple.
So, it will be a treasure to get these two films near the beginning of 2018. By the way things are looking with them so far, they’re sure to bring some joy to the new year.