Rozhdyestvo Obitatelei Lyesa [The Insect's Christmas] (1911) and Carrousel boréal [Winter Carousel] (1958)

I'm grouping these two animated shorts from Ladislaw Starewicz, a pioneer of stop-motion, together despite them being made more than four decades apart. Both films are fairly easy to locate online and well worth tracking down.

The Insect's Christmas (1911)

I believe The Insect's Christmas is the first animated Christmas movie ever made, or at least the earliest surviving example. The Insect's Christmas is sort of a whimsical fairytale that admittedly becomes a bit less whimsical when you realize the titular insects are dead bugs whose legs have been replaced with wires, but it's worth overlooking that unpleasant detail.

Before we get to the insects, the movie opens with a Father Christmas ornament coming alive on a Christmas tree and climbing down, accidentally shattering an ornament and waking a sleeping doll in the process. He travels outside and conjures a Christmas tree using his staff. Next, he uses his staff to clear away rocks and even break open the ground, causing insects and a frog to emerge. He gives his guests gifts, and we see him and the insects skiing and sledding downhill and skating on ice. One of the insects also fights with the frog over some candy. The next morning, Father Christmas (or Winter - I'm honestly not certain) returns to the Christmas tree and transforms back into an ornament.

There's not much to the story, but the animation in this is nothing short of spectacular. Yes, it's a little disturbing to know you're looking at dead bugs, but the effect Starewicz creates is incredible for the time (hell, it's good by today's standards). Likewise, the animation on Father Christmas is well executed. I also think the painted backdrops are gorgeous. This is really good work, and I'm not grading on a curve here - it's really good.

Assuming you can look past the gross reality of how this was constructed, it holds up. This is stop-motion Christmas five decades before Rankin/Bass came along, and - if I'm being honest - this looks better than most of their specials ever did.

Carrousel boréal/Winter Carousel (1958)

This ten-minute stop-motion short is one of Ladislaw Starewicz's final works, and parts feel like a callback to The Insect's Christmas. There's very little story here, but that's not the point. This is more a meditation on life and the changing seasons, and the plot - to the limited degree the term is even applicable - plays out more like a dream than a coherent narrative.

Because it's Starewicz, it's jaw-dropping to look at. He was making animation more than a half-century ahead of his time in 1913 - add another forty-five years of experience, and you'll have an inkling what you're in for.

It starts with a gorgeous wintery world, and a sleigh pulled by mechanical toy hares carrying an anthropomorphic rabbit to an ice rink, where a lamb and a bear are waiting. The three animals skate and play together, and there are some shenanigans with snowballs. Eventually they run into a living snowman that gives them a snow cone.

Then we cut to the titular Carousel, a spinning Christmas tree the animals are riding like ornaments. Or maybe they were supposed to be living ornaments all along, like Santa in The Insect's Christmas. Either way, they wind up falling off on a sleigh and riding through the snow. At this point, the ornaments (which are made of ice) melt off the Christmas tree. The snowman melts, too, or at least his outer shell does, revealing another animated figure inside.

I suspect there's a cultural reference I'm missing here: once the snow and ice are gone, the snowman is sort of a doll made of sticks and burlap. He has a flute and seems to be a spring spirit of some kind. Soon there are more animals - birds, frogs, grasshoppers, rats, and so on. Some animals play with dice, but the birds steal the winnings. The bear and an ant work on a house, possibly as a callback to another Starewicz film, The Dragonfly and the Ant (not Christmas, but definitely worth tracking down). The grasshopper plays a fiddle under a crescent moon and summer decorations. Then they wake the next morning and just relax as the short ends.

Like I said, this isn't plot based. I suppose its Christmas connections are debatable, as only half the special is set around the holidays (and even then, I'm being generous in my assumptions over how time passes and whether the skating counts as "Christmas" as opposed to "early winter."

For what it's worth, my reading is that the title's supposed to reference both the literal carousel the animals ride and the symbolic turning of the seasons, the beginning or end of which is traditionally marked by Christmas. Granted, this would be an easier case if the short ended on Christmas, rather than in the summer (there actually is a brief shot of the rabbit's sleigh again at the very end, but I'm not sure that counts).

Let's talk design and animation, because that's where this shines. I say that with a bit of hesitation, actually, as the main animals kind of creep me out. The designs are almost a little too real; there's a grotesque aspect to them I find slightly unpleasant at times. I almost think Starewicz did too good a job making them resemble humans and drifted into the uncanny valley.

That said, the designs for the backgrounds and sets are simply incredible - this feels like the world Rankin/Bass spent their careers trying to recreate. And the animation is simply incredible. The animals have articulated fingers and realistic tongues. Sure, that's kind of creepy, but on a technical level it's phenomenal.

This one probably isn't for people with only a passing interest in stop motion, but anyone who loves the art form will find a great deal to appreciate.