At a glance, The Boxtrolls looks like a fairly conventional animated film. It tells the story of a conflict between evil, arrogant humans and a group of friendly, quirky misunderstood creatures, and offers lessons about the importance of respecting each other's differences, believing in yourself and showing kindness to those in need. It sounds familiar, but that description doesn't come close to capturing the experience of what actually watching The Boxtrolls feels like. This is a spectacularly strange animated movie, further establishing Laika's position as a purveyor of dark, distinctive, imaginative stop-motion features.
Laika's debut feature was the wonderful Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline, one of the most successful modern riffs on the tale of Alice in Wonderland (certainly a more successful riff than Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland). That film benefitted from the assured the direction of stop-motion legend Henry Selick, who further refined the visual style he had brought to wonderful family films like James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Laika's next feature, Paranorman, looked and felt like a Selick film but lacked his narrative focus: it was a visually intoxicating mess, ping-ponging between a series of loosely-connected story threads and never quite landing on the right tone. Thankfully, The Boxtrolls (directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacci) is a return to form: an odd, involving story set in a fully-realized world.
The boxtrolls are... well, they're trolls who wear boxes. They speak in a semi-incoherent language that lands somewhere between Minion and Gremlin, but they're a bit more reserved than either of those groups. That may be due to the fact that the film takes place in a Victorian Steampunk version of London, a place defined by clattering machinery, antiquated social traditions and lavish top hats. The people with the finest top hats are the members of the White Hat Society, a group of wealthy muckety-mucks who make important decisions. Their leader is Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris, Mad Men), a snooty politician, cheese connoisseur and absentee father. How much does Lord Portley-Rind love cheese? When he hears a rumor that the boxtrolls have stolen cheese and a baby, he's far more concerned about the cheese.
No one yearns to be a member of the White Hat Society more than Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley, Hugo), a professional exterminator with a sadistic streak. In the wake of the alleged kidnapping, Archibald senses an opportunity: he offers to rid the entire city of boxtrolls in exchange for membership in the society. Lord Portley-Rind reluctantly agrees, and the mass extermination efforts begin.
As for the baby... well, he wasn't stolen by the boxtrolls, but rescued by them. He is raised as a boxtroll, and grows up to be a bright young lad named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, Game of Thrones) – so named because he wears a box sporting the word "Eggs." The closest thing Eggs has to a father is a friendly boxtroll named Fish (Dee Bradley Baker, American Dad) – so named because, well, you can guess. Eggs may not look or sound much like the other boxtrolls, but such peculiarities don't concern him. Alas, the day when he must confront his true identity is just around the corner.
The initial trailers for The Boxtrolls placed a great deal of emphasis on the hand-crafted nature of the film, and it's hard to ignore the amount of loving detail put into each and every frame. I'll admit a bit of personal bias: I love the stop-motion format, particularly when it's implemented this masterfully. The faint thumbprints on the clay models, the slightly jerky movements, the weighty physical presence of the little props scattered everywhere – it's a wonderful look, and an underappreciated one. As with Laika's other features, the film finds an appealing visual balance between grotesque absurdity and whimsical delight. Like a lot of great children's stories, it's designed to be scary and entertaining in roughly equal measure.
Unlike a lot of 21st century animated films, The Boxtrolls rarely seems particularly interested in tugging on the viewer's heartstrings. There's a very Aardman-esque emphasis on sly, unmistakably British fun, with dialogue that revels in droll observations and silly puns. The big-bellied, snaggle-toothed Archibald Snatcher is a spectacular Dickensian villain whose mad obsession comes with a slice of tragic irony: he wants nothing more than to sit around holding cultural discussions and eating cheese, but he knows nothing of culture and suffers from a severe cheese allergy. Ben Kingsley's vocal performance – a low growl filtered through an exaggerated Cockney accent - is one of the film's highlights; a real piece of acting that fills in the nuances of the character's personality. I also greatly enjoyed the timid sidekicks voiced by Nick Frost (The World's End) and Richard Ayoade (The I.T. Crowd), who spend most of the movie contemplating whether or not they are, in fact, the good guys.
The aforementioned Very Important Lessons are present, yes, but they mostly serve as background decoration for the film's wide array of fresh, flavorful ideas. The one truly tiresome bit of convention is the inevitable final battle, in which all of the characters go at each other in a long, noisy reel of mayhem. However, even this is partially redeemed by the melancholy denouement, in which Archibald gets a far more memorable exit than most sneering cartoon villains. I also wish more had been done with the character of Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning, Somewhere), a vain girl who eventually befriends Eggs. Winnie's vanity provides a few amusing moments (particularly when she falls to the ground in front of the boxtrolls and sighs, “Oh, just eat me, I probably taste delicious!”), but more often than not, she's awkwardly inserted into the mix in a well-meaning but clumsy effort to give the film a significant female character.
While Disney, Dreamworks, Blue Sky and other animation studios have spent most of the past twenty years attempting to mimic Pixar to one degree or another, Laika continues to do its own charmingly peculiar thing. The Boxtrolls is both a refreshing change of pace and a handsome piece of craftsmanship; an entertainment that finds the sweet spot between Selick's melancholy darkness and Nick Park's amiable wit. I was a little hesitant after Paranorman, but The Boxtrolls has me eagerly anticipating whatever weird new thing Laika serves up next.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Year: 2014