Great Fantasy Directors: Henry Selick
Most people think that Tim Burton directed The Nightmare Before Christmas himself, but it isn’t so. The actual director was the brilliant stop-motion animator Henry Selick. In one sense Nightmare was a good career move for Selick, but sadly he has never emerged from under Burton’s shadow, and today his name is little-known.
If you want to introduce yourself to Selick’s work, I suggest that you start with Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, a surreal short that originally aired on MTV and can now be found on the internet. It’s a wonderful piece, and portends his later work.
His follow-up to Nightmare, James and the Giant Peach, is a good-faith adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel, mainly consisting of stop-motion animation but bookended by lengthy live-action sequences set in the “real” world. The live-action parts are dismal; the animated parts are fascinating. That makes this a flawed masterpiece.
Then there is Monkeybone, which is sort of like Beetlejuice on acid (Beetlejuice itself was merely high on cannibas). The film is mostly live-action, but stop-motion animation is used judiciously throughout. Brendan Frasier plays the creator of a racy cartoon show who goes into a coma and comes to inhabit a purgatory-like way station where coma victims are served martinis through IV needles, and the nightmares of the living are the most popular form of entertainment. Subsequently, Fraiser’s fictional creation Monkeybone steals his body and impersonates him in the real world. The film is a blast, filled with incredible visuals and sick black humor, and of course it was a total financial disaster.
Coraline fared a lot better at the box office. An animated horror film for kids, it concerns a little girl who discovers a door in her house that leads to a parallel world with another mother and another father, who, quite disturbingly, have buttons for eyes. At first they seem like a big improvement over her actual parents, but then they try to sew buttons into her eyes to make her one of them. Sadly, the film was advertised as being from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, leading most people to believe it was a Tim Burton movie.
Along with Coraline, Selick produced a computer-animated short called Moongirl that can be found on the internet, and it’s wonderfully imaginative and charming. Selick’s work is truly magical, and I anxiously await The Shadow King, his next full-length animated film.