Making Miracles From the Mundane: Why Claymation Still Works
The release of the long-awaited Monsters, Inc prequel, Monster’s University, reveals just how much CGI animation has grown over the past decade. Back in 2001, when Pixar released the original Monsters Inc, the mere sight of Sulley’s hair represented a revolution in technology. Now, having witnessed virtual hairstyles as luxurious as Aslan’s mane in Narnia and the bouncing curls of the heroine of Brave, audiences take such details for granted. Each succeeding CGI film promises to be faster, bigger and better than its predecessors, with otherworldly epics such as James Cameron’s Avatar openly advertising themselves as the peak of human technology. Yet each ensuing peak has inevitably yielded to an even greater rise, with the newest films leaving their ancestors in the dust. Simply by virtue of its appearance Monsters University sheds an unflattering light upon Monsters Inc; the graphics which a decade ago left audiences in awe now appear blatantly artificial. Yet the film’s humor and personality ensure its survival; spectacular giants might dominate the world of animated film in the short term, but as a species they are doomed to extinction.
On the other hand, the Claymation movies continue to stand against the tide of technological development. Expensive, difficult and time-consuming to produce, they logically ought to have been eliminated from the competition decades ago. Yet directors as prestigious as Tim Burton have used the form to produce such macabre classics as A Nightmare before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, and, most recently, Frankenweenie. Nick Park, one of the principle writers and directors of the British film studio Aardman Animations, has justly been recognized as a pioneer of stop motion animation. His Oscar-award winning shorts, A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave, turned the irrepressible duo of Wallace and Gromit into national icons. In 2000 he realized his dream of creating the first stop-motion feature film with the fantastically zany Chicken Run, and in 2005 resurrected the legend of Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. With their pop-out eyes, toothy grins and intensely expressive faces, all of his creations bear an unmistakable spark of life. As a hapless spectator to Wallace’s plots and stratagems, Gromit conveys more thoughts and feelings through the mere movements of his brows than entire population of smooth, polished Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar.
But perhaps imperfection is the secret to Claymation’s power. With all their inadequacies and eccentricities, Nick Park’s characters remain astonishingly and recognizably human. The humor of his movies lies in their ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary; in Wallace and Gromit, the daily chores and routines of an ordinary man and his dog, from buttering the bread to getting out of bed in the morning, become a vehicle for wild and fantastical inventions, while in Chicken Run, an unexalted chicken coop becomes the setting of a Spielbergian quest for freedom. More recently, the Australian director Adam Elliot proved that Claymation could transcend comedy, with his 2009 stop-animated feature Mary and Max. The movie tells the true story of the unlikely friendship that forms between Max Jerry Horovitz, a forty year old Asperger’s sufferer living alone and unemployed, and Mary Daisy Dinkle, an eight year old enduring a lonely and neglected childhood. Alternating between the parched wasteland of Mary’s suburban neighborhood and the gloom of Max’s apartment in New York, the movie takes on the themes of loneliness and isolation; yet its gentle satire of its animated characters lends it unexpected warmth and humor. However dazzling the achievements of technology, none can rival the power of a story to capture elements of human experience.