The latest film from the brilliant minds and hands at animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman), The Boxtrolls comes to the big screen laden with quite a set of expectations. With Pixar now apparently passé (what, no one liked Cars 2?), animation fans seem to have pinned their collective hopes and dreams on Portland-based Laika as the shiny new face of original storytelling in animated features. Frankly, that’s a lot of weight for one little film to bear, and in the face of mixed early reviews, I’ll admit that I braced myself for crushing disappointment as I walked into the theater this weekend.
Well good news, boys and girls, your hopes and dreams are safe with Laika for one day more: The Boxtrolls is charming, inventive, and beautifully realized in gorgeous stop-motion animation.
At the heart of The Boxtrolls lies a young orphan named Eggs (name derived from the label on his wee cardboard box), raised by the film’s titular Boxtrolls in caverns beneath the streets of Victorian-esque Cheesebridge. Reviled by the upper Cheesebridge residents as baby-snatching, flesh-eating, bone-picking abominations, we soon learn that the Boxtrolls are in fact shy tinkerers who roam the streets at night to scavenge bits and bobs for the technological contraptions that populate their subterranean city.
Hunting the Boxtrolls is snaggle-toothed villain Archibald Snatcher, a ruthless social climber voiced by the inestimable Ben Kingsley, who gifts us with a colorfully vile performance. Joining Snatcher are henchmen Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), a genre-savvy duo whose philosophical meta-musings about the nature of good and evil are one of the hilarious highlights of the film.
With Boxtroll populations decimated night after night by Snatcher’s snatching, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, aka Bran from Game of Thrones) must venture above ground amongst the humans of Cheesebridge. Teaming up with the imperious Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), a petticoated aristocrat with a delightfully grisly imagination, Eggs embarks on a perilous adventure replete with polite manners, stinky cheese, steampunky destruction devices, and a frankly shocking depiction of lactose intolerance in order to save his box-clad family.
What can I say? I loved it. The script is playful and witty, drawing you into a world that is, though quite by-the-book in its themes and tropes, fabulously unique in its execution. The film displays the grim-yet-whimsical tone that Laika has excelled with in Coraline and ParaNorman. It feels a bit like a dark fairytale: like reading Cinderella, but the version where the stepsisters chop their toes and heels off and the shoe fills with blood and all that. There is certainly darkness here, despite it being a family film—orphans are flung about with Dickensian relish, Boxtrolls cruelly exterminated, leeches kept on hand for casual medical applications—but then again, it is the kind of family film that Pixar became so beloved for: the kind that does not condescend to children nor pander to adults.
The sense of lurking darkness is enhanced considerably, of course, by the outstanding production design. The winding and narrow streets of Cheesebridge are rendered in extraordinary detail by Laika, and the characters are enhanced by exaggerated anatomy and fanciful costumes (Winnie’s dresses in particular are marvelously ugly). The Victorian murk of the shabby, cobble-paved town is almost palpable, and the muted color design adds to a carefully created aesthetic of dinge and grime.
It is in creating atmosphere that the strengths of stop motion really shine as well, as the technique lends a certain level of tangibility and organic texture to the visuals that fully CG animation just can’t quite capture. And Laika’s technical abilities are certainly on full display here: creative camerawork builds on dynamic, expressive animation, and every frame is crammed with visual detail. One of the many wonderful things about Laika is their emphasis on the craft of stop-motion animation for its own sake—and do make sure to stay to the end of the film for an extra treat in that regard.
The mascots of the film, the Boxtrolls themselves, in a way speak to the film experience as a whole. It would be a far stretch to call the blue, pointy-eared little monsters “huggable” or “cute,” and yet I found their gobbledygook talk and tinkering ways endearing as anything, and what they lacked in conventional beauty they certainly made up for in personality and heart.
Quirky, charming, and very funny, The Boxtrolls delivers on all the promises of its pedigree, and delivers them with a level of technical artistry few films can match. I dare you to try to walk out of the theater without smiling.