Child’s Play: Top 10 cinematic animatronics of all time

From Child’s Play to Labyrinth, we celebrate cinema’s greatest animatronics

If you think puppets are child’s play, think again…

In the hit horror film reboot Child’s Play, the iconic killer doll Chucky is brought to terrifying life with the aid of some astonishing animatronics – a form of special effects wizardry that uses wires, cables and motors to operate all manner of fantastic creatures onscreen. 

For Child’s Play, instead of CGI, the MastersFX team used numerous animatronic puppets (made of metal joints, a plastic exoskeleton and foam latex skin and interchangeable hands) operated by four puppeteers, turning Chucky into a creepy and believable mini-monster. 

Animatronics has been used to incredible effect since the 1960s, peaking in the 1980s and now seeing something of a resurgence thanks to the success of Child’s Play – here’s a round-up of some of the most memorable animatronic onscreen creations. 

1. Mary Poppins (1964)

First use of animatronics was in the beloved Disney film, following on from Disney’s use of the technique to make animals move on some of its Disneyland theme park rides. In Mary Poppins, animatronics is used for the little tweeting robins during the song A Spoon Full of Sugar. Cinema-goers in 1964 might well have wondered how Julie Andrews got the little birdy to land on her hand and sing so obediently. 

2. King Kong (1976)

The monster movie remake updated the stop motion effects from the 1933 original, this time using animatronics to make the huge ape, designed by Carlo Rambaldi, appear to have almost human emotions, as he falls in love with Dwan (Jessica Lange). The effects won a Special Achievement Award at the 1977 Oscars.

3. Alien (1979)

In one of the most shocking and unexpected scenes ever seen onscreen, an alien bursts out of John Hurt’s chest midway through Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror. The grisly realism of the scene was assured by having the animatronic alien puppet, operated by secreted wires and pulleys, go nimbly dashing across the table accompanied by a high-pitched squeal and lashings of blood.

4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Jedi Master Yoda, who taught Luke Skywalker how to use ‘the Force’, was created by designer Stuart Freeborn, puppeteer Frank Oz and British special effects artist Nick Maley. Although Yoda was CGI-ed for the more recent Star Wars films, the first puppet is arguably the most convincing. As Yoda himself might say ‘best, sometimes original is’.

5. An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Special effects guru Rick Baker deservedly won an Oscar for his eye-popping effects on John Landis’s groundbreaking horror film. The scene where American tourist David (David Naughton) transforms into a werewolf in front of the audience’s eyes, took a week to film, mixing prosthetics with animatronic models, and still outdoes anything computer generated to this day.

6. The Thing (1982)

Rob Bottin was only in his early twenties when he came up for all manner of horrific animatronic creations, for John Carpenter’s hugely frightening horror film about a shape-shifting alien terrorising the crew at an Antarctic research station. One of the characters in the film spoke for us all, when, upon seeing one of Bottin’s bizarre beasties crawling across the floor, exclaimed: “You gotta to be f***ing kidding!”

7. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

King Kong and Alien special effects man Carlo Rambaldi won his third Oscar for creating the title character for Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi favourite, about an alien stranded on Earth. The alien, with its extendable neck and glowing finger, required complicated animatronics to ensure it became one of the most lovable and iconic and screen creations ever.

8. Gremlins (1984)

In Joe Dante’s blockbuster horror comedy, the mischievous creatures were originally going to be played by monkeys wearing Gremlin heads. However, when this was tested out, the monkey didn’t take to wearing a mask and went berserk. So, all the Gremlins, created by Chris Walas (who won an Oscar for his work on The Fly) were animatronic – meaning a lot of puppets and puppeteers in what, Walas says was “absolutely the most difficult and demanding film I ever did”.

9. Labyrinth (1986)

Puppet pioneer Jim Henson, creator of the muppets, used sophisticated animatronics for the vast array of creatures in the fantasy adventure Labyrinth, where Sarah, a young girl must rescue her baby brother from the strange maze. Hoggle, the first creature Sarah encounters, was the most complicated puppet creature the Henson workshop had ever built. The technically elaborate face contained 18 motors to control all the expressions, operated by four people by radio control. 

10. Jurassic Park (1993)

In Stephen Spielberg’s spectacular blockbuster, he used a mix of CGI and animatronics for the story of cloned dinosaurs running amok at a theme park. Stan Winston won an Oscar for his work on the film, which included the terrifying raptors, created with a cable-controlled puppet and a man in suit. The resulting creatures were so lifelike, one critic wrote ‘I can’t tell where the special effects end and the real dinosaurs begin’. 

From Orion Pictures and KatzSmith Productions, Child’s Play will be available to buy on Digital download from 11th October and to buy on Blu-ray/DVD and Digital Rental from 21st October.