In just about any film class, the first thing the teacher will say is that everything in a movie is there for a reason.

If a scene is shot from eye-level or a bird's-eye view, that's because the director and cinematographer thought that was best (whether they're right is another story). If a cat wanders through the background of a scene, it was either planned that way or the director decided it was interesting enough to keep. Auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock planned everything in advance but even go-with-the-flow directors get the final say about which parts of the flow we'll see on screen.

I mention that only because the most created-for-our-eyes-only kind of movie is stop-motion animation, which uses a series of static images (usually involving some kind of puppet) to create the illusion of movement. Literally every single thing we see on screen is there for a reason.

Stop-motion movies, which date to the early days of cinema, don't depict reality; they depict something better. By creating a world that resembles ours but clearly isn't, they give us an eye-opening new way to look at the things around us.

Aardman Animation's clay (actually, plasticene) figures may be the best example, since you can often see fingerprints on the characters — evidence of the hands that painstakingly posed the characters between shots to make them "move."

Take the dazzling opening of "Chicken Run." Even before we've met the characters, it blows us away with a shot of a prison camp at night, especially if you take a moment to think about each element. Just the lighting alone includes tiny bulbs suspended over the camp to catch potential escapees, a miniature lantern held by a guard and moonlight that gently blankets the camp. The whole thing is probably a foot tall and 4 feet wide but there must be about 50 different sources of light within it, each lovely in its own right.

The cool thing about the best stop-motion animation (and animation, generally) is that, like a magician who amazes us with a trick and then reveals how they do it, it tells a story while also letting us in on the technique. You can enjoy all of these outstanding movies for their stunning visuals and stories, without worrying about any of that. But if you take a minute to think about how they were put together, these greats get even better.

Chicken Run

There are so many reasons to love 2000's hilarious debut feature from England's Aardman Animation. The voice cast is distinctive (Julia Sawalha, Imelda Staunton, Miranda Richardson, Timothy Spall). It's not just funny; it's also exciting and sweet. And it's an unofficial remake of "The Great Escape" that substitutes a factory farm for a Nazi prison camp and plucky chickens for Steve McQueen and James Garner.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Aardman's biggest competition in the stop-animation world is Laika, the American company that produced this tender tale of a Japanese boy on a mythic quest. The 2016 film is funny and touching, but leans more in the direction of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as Kubo fulfills his destiny. The gorgeous climax features a ceremony in which thousands of paper lanterns are released.


"When you lose someone you love, they never really leave you. They just move into a special place in your heart," Victor's mom (voiced by the great Catherine O'Hara) tells him when his dog dies. But Victor can't manage his grief in Tim Burton's macabre 2012 comedy, so he Dr. Frankensteins a spare-parts version of his pooch. Predictably, it doesn't go well. Unpredictably, "Frankenweenie" is the biggest tear-jerker on this tear-jerky list.

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Aardman is best known for Wallace and Gromit, a fuzzy-brained Brit and his silently judging dog. They've starred in three Oscar-winning short films as well as this Oscar-winning 2005 feature, in which they battle a dastardly nobleman (Ralph Fiennes, sidesplitting) when a snooty gardener (Helena Bonham Carter) hires them to protect her garden from mutant rabbits. Both a spoof of vintage horror movies and English giant-vegetable competitions (for real), "Were-Rabbit" is a gem.

James and the Giant Peach

Henry Selick has directed just four movies and none since the excellent stop-motion "Coraline" in 2009. His best is this 1996 Roald Dahl adaptation, which combines live action with stop-motion to tell the story of an orphan boy who befriends a bunch of insects on his way from England to New York in an enormous, flying piece of fruit. There's good news for Selick fans, though: Next year he'll return with an animated film that also reunites Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, "Wendell and Wild."


The title character feels like an outsider in his Massachusetts town, mostly because he hangs out a lot in the cemetery, speaking to the dead. Grief is a big theme in this 2012 movie but, like "Frankenweenie," it's an affectionate parody of classic midcentury horror movies. "ParaNorman" also takes smart chances with its vivid characters, including one who has become a source of comfort for young LGBTQ folks.


By far the oddest film on this list is Charlie Kaufman's R-rated, adults-only 2015 drama, featuring the vocal talents of David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Its main character thinks all people look the same until he meets a woman who helps him get in touch with his own humanity. The medium is the message here — somehow, the inanimate objects in Kaufman's sad romance seem more human than human.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367 • @HewittStrib