Henry Selick is one of the best directors working in the film industry but his talents often get overlooked. Working with renowned creators like Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman, he is a master at adapting other people’s work but he is also creative in his own right which is one of the reasons why those films are so great.
Selick was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey in 1952 and he mostly spent his childhood drawing and being inspired by animated films like Lotte Reineger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) and Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). He studied art in New York and London and then he studied animation in California at CalArts, where he got much attention and accolades for his student films and was classmates with future animation stars like Brad Bird, Jerry Rees and John Musker, people he is still friends with to this day.
After graduating from CalArts, Selick was hired by Disney in the late seventies where he started out as an inbetweener on Pete’s Dragon (1977) before moving to full-time animator on The Fox and the Hound (1981), although he was uncredited on that film because he didn’t get enough animation on screen. This was amidst the turmoil of Don Bluth quitting Disney and starting his own studio while taking half of Disney’s animators with him and causing The Fox and the Hound‘s release to be delayed. Selick was one of the animators who left, at first just temporarily, but when Selick began to experiment on independent films outside of Disney, his career path changed.
Selick, whose interest in animation was larger than just hand-drawn, made an independent stop-motion film in 1982 called Seepage, and after the experience of making that film compared to what he was doing at Disney, traditional animation didn’t interest Selick as much anymore, although Selick was grateful for his time at Disney and he learned a lot there, even calling legendary Disney animator Eric Larson one of his best teachers, but Selick wasn’t a Mickey Mouse-drawing Disney geek like his co-workers, so after doing a little bit of work on The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective he officially resigned.
During his initial time off from Disney, Selick found work as a sequence director for Lucasfilm’s cutout-animated Twice Upon a Time (1983) from indie director John Korty and animator Charles Swenson, who was known later for his work at Fred Wolf Films and Klasky-Csupo. Selick also made ends meet by storyboarding on live-action films like Tron (1982) and Return to Oz (1985), directing the Fishbone music video for “Party at Ground Zero” (1985) and animating Pillsbury Doughboy commercials as well as working at MTV making stop-motion station IDs. That’s when Rick Heinrichs approached him to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The origin of The Nightmare Before Christmas came from fellow CalArts student-turned-Disney animator Tim Burton’s satirical poem of the same name which Burton presented to Disney in the eighties as a possible animated TV special. Disney didn’t understand it so they initially put the idea on hold, but after Burton had huge success with films like Beetlejuice and Batman, Disney revived the project, only they wanted it to be a theatrically-released feature film, which was rare for stop motion in those days. Rick Heinrichs, who went to CalArts with Burton, is the person responsible for adapting many of Tim Burton’s stick-figure drawings to the screen via sculpture and set design and he reached out to Selick.
Selick completely understood how to make The Nightmare Before Christmas into a good film. He had a brilliant story from Tim Burton, brilliant songs from Danny Elfman, the brilliant Joe Ranft as the head of story and a brilliant team of stop-motion animators (that were thankfully available because of Art Clokey’s recent Gumby reboot), and it was Selick’s job to combine all the ingredients together into something entertaining. Selick enjoyed making the film so much he described it as a dream job, and it paid off. It was a success with audiences and critics when it came out in 1993 but over the years its fan base has grown huge and the film continues to be a popular annual viewing tradition during the holidays.
The next film Henry Selick would direct would be James and the Giant Peach (1996), based on the 1961 book by Roald Dahl. Joe Ranft had wanted Disney to adapt that book for years, first pitching it in the eighties, but Disney thought a fantasy about a boy who flies through the sky on a giant peach was too complicated to adapt. However the winning streak of the Disney Renaissance may have given the studio more confidence because they acquired the film rights to the book in 1992. After hiring Henry Selick as the director, Disney debated with Selick back and forth over whether it should be a live-action film or an animated film, ultimately compromising by making it both, with a Wizard of Oz-like change of style when James enters the peach and meets the talking insects. Featuring the same producing team behind The Nightmare Before Christmas and a typically great soundtrack by Randy Newman, the film was more of an artistic success than a financial one, and Disney put their stop-motion production on hold after the film flopped, with the huge success of the computer-animated Toy Story a year earlier thought to be a significant if unfair contributing factor to that decision.
Next Selick directed the live-action/animated hybrid dark fantasy Monkeybone (2001) for 20th Century Fox. Based on the Canadian comic book Dark Town by Kaja Blackley and basically like Roger Rabbit-meets-Tim Burton in tone, it starred Brendan Fraser as a cartoonist who gets taken to a cartoon-like world and John Turturro as the voice of Fraser’s cartoon creation Monkeybone. It bombed badly and is not remembered very fondly by audiences or critics, with Selick looking back on it as a failed project and expressing regret for not firing the film’s writer. Afterwards Selick animated the sea creatures in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and was originally going to be the animation director on Anderson’s film Fantastic Mr. Fox, but then Coraline came along. Around the time Selick was making Monkeybone, he actually met Neil Gaiman who was working on his novel Coraline at the time. Selick loved the story and seeing as how Gaiman was a fan of both The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, Selick convinced Gaiman to let him adapt it to film and Selick worked on it for years until Will Vinton Studios (after Will Vinton was forced out but before it became LAIKA) expressed interest in making it. They gave Selick the most creative freedom he ever had since Nightmare, which is why Coraline was his best film since Nightmare. It was released by Focus Features in 2009 and ultimately received critical acclaim, became a box office success and earned an Oscar nomination as well as tons of fans who continue to adore it to this day.
Pixar CCO John Lasseter also loved Coraline so he hired Henry Selick in 2010 to make a stop-motion animated movie for Disney that would have been called The Shadow King, but too much interference from Pixar’s brain trust caused the story to keep changing and the film’s budget to keep inflating, which caused Disney to cancel it in 2012. A devastating blow to Selick who was working on it for two years. But fatefully Selick was cheering himself up from the heartache of The Shadow King‘s cancellation by watching a TV series that premiered on Comedy Central that same year, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s sketch comedy series Key & Peele. After many laugh-filled sessions watching that show (further proof that Selick has good taste because that show is hilarious), Selick contacted the comedy duo to propose a collaboration on a film based on an original story by Selick which would become the film Wendell & Wild (2022).
This collaboration originated in 2015 before Peele became a horror film icon with the phenomenon Get Out in 2017, but after Get Out, every studio wanted to work with Jordan Peele so production picked up, with Netflix getting the distribution rights in 2018. Selick designed the demons in the movie when he drew his two sons with devil horns and fangs, with the short story that resulted from that image turned into a film about adult demons voiced by Key and Peele. Thankfully Peele is a stop-motion geek as well as a film geek in general so a collaboration with Henry Selick was not a hard sell, with Peele not only insisting on producing but having an artistic say in the film’s creation, telling Selick he wanted a cast who looked like him in the film because that was the kind of thing he wished he had seen when he was a kid. Selick was fully on board.
Wendell & Wild has gotten a good reception since its release with many people praising it as Henry Selick’s comeback since it was his first feature film to be released since Coraline. Here’s hoping the gap between now and his next project isn’t so long this time, and that Hollywood stops taking him for granted and realizes how much of a talent he is!