The Henry Selick Movies Ranked

Henry Selick is one of the great animated filmmakers of our time. The director, best known for his stop motion work, has made some of the most enduring animated movies of all time. He operates in an offbeat, macabre style that is often replicated by others, yet rarely rivaled. And yet Selick doesn’t have the most expansive filmography as director. While he’s contributed his talents to a number of projects, including Disney films in the 1970s and ’80s at the start of his career, Selick has directed just ten movies in the 47 years since 1975. Five of those are shorts, and he has only directed five features in the 29 years since THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS came out in 1993. Even still, the impact of Selick’s work is great, making him one of my favorite filmmakers working in the animated space. I hope he is given the resources and time to make even more of his long-gestating ideas and projects. But ranked here is the full body of Selick’s work, shorts included.

The only miss in Selick’s filmography is one operating outside of his usual medium of stop motion. MOONGIRL was the first production of Laika (who Selick would later make CORALINE for) and it too wasn’t in the studio’s eventual stop motion mold. This CG-animated bit of fantasy is not up to par even for the time and carries some of the uncanny valley effect, or plain ol’ repugnance, to be found in the 3D work of the era. The character designs and animation are off-putting and not very fluid, undermining the slight success of the short’s liminal space aesthetic. MOONGIRL is an ineffectual, and dare I say bland, film from a director who has otherwise never made another one that could be described as such.

Selick’s two student films, made at CalArts, aren’t even on IMDB. But they’re on Letterboxd and YouTube (unlisted, but here, watch this please) and definitely worth viewing. PHASES, the second of his shorts, is a wild and freewheeling piece of animation that calls to mind the groundbreaking FANTASMAGORIE (1908). The short’s bold, red lines create a 3D effect and presage the vector-based graphics of some arcade games (and especially the Vectrex home console) to come in the next few years. The movement of the characters, especially the humanoid ones, enter the uncanny valley too, but in a way that’s investing, impressive, and satisfactorily otherworldly (like some of the works of Winsor McCay). PHASES is a “traditional” hand-drawn work from what I understand, an experiment before Selick entered his stop motion paradigm, but it’s an entertaining and mind-bending piece of animation even if you expect something different from him.

SEEPAGE (also hard to track down) is a wonderful multimedia work made up of hand-drawn work, with broad, colored pencil-esque strokes, and stop motion cutouts. The story it tells is intentionally immured, daring a viewer to interpret it “correctly.” At the end of the day, I’m not quite sure what Selick is trying to say with SEEPAGE, but I know that it consistently wows with its tone, evoking a kind of pocket dimension with brilliant artfulness.

Selick has worked with live action/animation hybrids a few times in his career and SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS was his first foray. At this point in his career, Selick was creating animated interstitials for MTV (what a time, that a talent like that was brought to that channel for “minor” work). SLOW BOB was created as a pilot for a potential series. Watching it, I have no idea what premise the short could have possibly been setting up. A little bit more coherent than SEEPAGE but more anxious and darker than the relative languorousness of that short, SLOW BOB not only blends live action and animation; the latter is multimedia. It opens with stop motion that definitely calls to mind the look of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, especially of the kids in their homes towards the end of the movie. But hand-drawn techniques creep into the unhinged progression of events as well, swirling together to make a puzzling yet impactful piece of art that is SLOW BOB.

Selick’s first student film has to have been inspired by the work of underground comix artists like R. Crumb and the contemporary adult animation of Ralph Bakshi. This satirical short may not have the most novel of angles on the television-watching public, but the way Selick draws out the sensation of homogenized derangement through TUBE TALES (watch it here since it’s difficult to track down) is wonderfully weird, chaotic, and a little anxiety-inducing. There’s something about the liminality of the cartoon that really appeals to me, that echoes out through the decades. It’s a trait that exists in almost all of Selick’s work: the feeling of a transmission truly coming through some other (perhaps lower) dimension. And it was there in Selick’s first directed work; his finest short, TUBE TALES.

It may be unfair to compare, but there is no doubt that Selick’s features are entirely superior to his shorts, almost all of which were made before he “graduated” to the full-length movies. But WENDELL & WILD, Selick’s latest and the impetus for this piece, isn’t quite the long-awaited masterpiece I was hoping for. Coming more than 13 years after CORALINE (the biggest gap between Selick directorial credits, short or feature), the Netflix Original stars Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele as demon brothers who make a deal with a young orphan. The story diverges from there into all kinds of territory, with perhaps too many threads. But Selick and his co-screenwriter of his original concept, Peele himself, are able to weave them together effectively enough so as to make WENDELL & WILD the director’s most overtly political work. This manifests in its very clear anti-establishment tone and pointed criticism of private prisons (and the prison system at large), but also in the movie’s embrace of Black punks, trans kids, and self-expression. These themes are strong, but the moment-to-moment execution of humor or action isn’t without gaps, as if there was too much air in the proceedings. Selick has said he intentionally kept flaws in the movie to distinguish it from the sheen of contemporary CG animation and I can see it. But it does in fact work to WENDELL & WILD’s benefit, a movie with some pacing and plotting imperfections that nevertheless stands as a piece of fun, heart-stirring animation.

The path to my watching Selick’s notorious “adult” live action/stop motion fusion starring Brendan Fraser began long ago in Blockbuster. I remember seeing the cover to the movie and thinking it was indeed a children’s film. Of course, I didn’t know Selick was behind it at the time (I was four when it came out), but there was something recognizable to me in its titular primate’s design and I knew I liked Fraser from THE MUMMY (1999) and GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997) and the like. In any event, it took about, oh, 20 more years for me to finally watch it, when it was revealed it was a favorite in my girlfriend’s family. And I was blown away by the fact that MONKEYBONE was and is viscerally hated. Look, the movie is not some masterpiece. But ultimately, Fraser’s winning charm (he’s one of my favorite actors of this period) sustains the portions in the “real” world and the morbid and carnivalesque aesthetic of the “other” realm (full of incredibly bizarre makeup and costumes for creatures of all kinds) elevates the movie to a freewheeling success for me. MONKEYBONE deserves reevaluation, and if you don’t like it, you’re a normie. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

Released just a couple of months before I was born, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH was still kicking around by the time I had consciousness enough to watch and retain movies. Still, I hadn’t apparently retained much, because in rewatching it for this piece, I found that I hadn’t even remembered that a decent chunk of the movie was live action. But what did reappear from my memories (James’ initial descent into the peach, Mr. Centipede’s jack-o-lantern-esque design) was so powerfully nostalgic. And what was essentially new to me, such as those live action portions, were so brilliantly crafted that it moved me to tears a couple of times. Selick channeled his old pal Tim Burton (now apparently turned uneasy nemesis) in JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH’s microscopic live action sets. Even with real people running around them, they look like miniature dioramas painted with extreme colors, shadows, and light. But of course the crux and ultimate appeal of the movie is its smooth stop motion; smooth, although it never loses its medium’s inherently rough charm. JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH has a more typical narrative than THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, at least as far as its screenwriting structure bones, and perhaps it’s a bit more conventional in its overt heartstring-tugging. But its own heart is in the right place, right at the center of every beautiful shot and magical movement of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH.

I’ve seen CORALINE what feels like a dozen times. Although I’ve certainly not seen it that many times (maybe I clock in around a half-dozen), its ubiquity remains because of how brilliant of a movie it is. CORALINE is a comfort food movie, one that plays with imagination (that of Neil Gaiman, who wrote the book it is based on) with unparalleled stop motion proficiency. As Laika’s first feature, CORALINE was a total repudiation of the possibilities that seemed bleak from Selick’s first collaboration with the studio (MOONGIRL). One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its tone. Like Gaiman’s book, it’s not afraid to challenge children with darkness and the macabre, and because of that, it is ultimately accessible to kids and adults and is quite heartwarming. The images Selick conjures up from his source material are given cute and menacing life (sometimes both) and the fluidity of the movie’s movements is among the greatest achievements of the stop-motion space. CORALINE is an all-time favorite, animated, stop motion, whatever, and one of two Selick masterworks.

Of course, Selick’s other masterpiece is one that is often affixed with and attributed to a different name: Tim Burton. While THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS originated with Burton’s ideas, Selick was the director and lead of a team of animators (the collaborative process of moviemaking but especially animated work should be stressed even when I submerge into auteurist sensibilities as I have here). And he and his collaborators made one of the greatest animated films and a personal favorite movie in general, whichever concepts were originated from Burton’s head. Something I’ve come to realize is THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is such a lean movie, as a twist not on the stop motion Christmas TV specials of Rankin/Bass in its holiday-fusing premise, but also in those productions’ abridged length, pacing, and broad fairytale appeal. There is something about stop motion that can retain an ethereality unlike any other in animation, in spite of its grounding in our physical world. I’ve used the word “liminal” a couple of times in this piece already, but the way THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS embodies the concept is aspirational. Not unlike Jack Skellington at the door to Christmas Town, watching THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS makes me feel like I’m at the threshold of another space; one more magical, thrilling, scary, beautiful, and ultimately, comforting. I’ve traced the desire to visit Selick’s weird mindscape all the way back to his first student short, TUBE TALES, but with THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (his first feature, to boot), the director manifested his purest energy of stop motion animation’s appeal yet.

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