It is one thing to put out a film that is a film that shows off the hundreds of hours of work that went into crafting a wholly unique world and set of characters, but it is another thing to merge that craftsmanship with a wonderful story about identity and societal roles of all things. Of course, it would be easier to just say The Boxtrolls is a high-spirited, mad-cap adventure-comedy that may not be as complex or tinged with darkness in the same way that Laika’s previous films, Coraline and ParaNorman, were, but still another fine entry from a studio that has done wonders in the stop-animation world in recent years.
Eggs: It’s a pleasure to meet you.
The story involves an orphaned boy named Eggs (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who has been raised by an underground species called the Boxtrolls. They are named as such because they are trolls that wear boxes both as a fashion-statement and as a way for them to hide, as they are shy creatures that like to tinker with things. Their shyness does not stop the top-dwelling society from fearing these creatures, which leads to lots of propaganda about Boxtrolls being known for eating babies, among other things. This agenda allows for an evil exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), to be hired to destroy all of the Boxtrolls, in an effort to further his social standing in the city with the other bigwigs (or big-hats). While Snatcher has his agenda, we also meet a regular human girl, Winnie (Elle Fanning), who befriends Eggs and has a weird obsession with the Boxtrolls and their supposed nastiness.
There is more to this story, I suppose, but something I found interesting was how content this film was in wanting to set up its world and characters. Half of this movie is really more devoted to establishing a sense of place, before we get any forward momentum in the story. While I can understand how that may throw some viewers off, I was all for it, as I really enjoyed seeing the different creations that Laika has come up with this time around. Clearly not wanting to repeat themselves too much, The Boxtrolls may have some imagery that could be deemed mildly ghoulish, but this is a film far less concerned with the darker side of things and happier to embrace its fictional period setting, which combines elements of steampunk, Roald Dahl, and Charles Dickens. As a result, we get a different sort of animated feature fitting for children and adults.
Based on the novel Here Be Monsters! By Alan Snow, screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava do a fine job of creating a story that is up to the task of fleshing out a number of characters, be they human or otherwise, while also balancing the necessity of traditional plotting in an effort to make for an exciting film. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi certainly seem to fit into the collection of people that Laika has used to best display the type of films they want to be known for. That is to say that a film like Coraline or this Boxtrolls movie seems to play as just the right kind of feature that understands having an appreciation for this format of animation, as much as it understands putting together an interesting tale, with some interesting themes.
With that in mind, there does seem to be a lower level of stakes, when it comes to really getting the plight of these Boxtroll characters across. Perhaps it is because the villainous Snatcher character is as important as the Boxtrolls and Eggs. While there is a clear line between the good and bad guys in this film, we are given a lot of understanding as far as who this Snatcher character is, which is interesting. Not just out to be evil, Snatcher has desires to ascend into the upper-class, despite obvious aspects that hold him back. Getting a look at this society in general is quite interesting actually, as it feels like a pointed look at the 1% who are oblivious to things that are of little concern to them, compared to luxury items. In this case, cheese is the hot commodity that the true upperclassmen, the white hats, celebrate. While these sorts of details will not be examined as much by the younger viewers of this film, it is interesting to see ideas like this pop up, just as I loved the way ParaNorman wanted to tackle the notion of bullying in a manner that was much more effective than even the documentary Bully could accomplish.
In addition to the role of the villain in this film, where Ben Kingsley does his best Timothy Spall impression (both in voice and in look, though that’s not Kingsley’s doing), the rest of this voice cast is quite effective. Elle Fanning does fine work as Winnie, who is both a source of laughs and plot-based heroics. More than just a sidekick female character, she is quite involved in the progression of this story, which is nice. Most enjoyable and in a way that is not easy/cuddly comedy in the same way that something like the Minions from the Despicable Me films function, Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade voice two of Snatcher’s henchmen, who have existential conversations about whether or not they are heroes or villains. We may be getting spin-off movies for Minions and the Penguins from Madagascar, but I would easily watch a film about this Mr. Pickles/Mr. Trout duo in a heartbeat. Lastly, Simon Pegg has a role that I do not want to get into, but is easily one of the more tragic characters I have seen this year.
The Boxtrolls had me enjoying plenty of the fine work, craftsmanship, and effort put into all aspects of the film. Perhaps not as tight as Laika’s previous efforts, but still another triumph from this small Oregon-based animation studio that seems to have a proper head on its shoulders. I continue to be quite pleased by a studio that is making the effort to go into obscure territory in order to find interesting ways to entertain audiences of all ages. It is nice to have familiar stuff (which can also be just as mature), but The Boxtrolls fits quite well for me as far as the products of less predictable studios go. So yes, in the case of creatures that wear cardboard boxes and have a young boy living as one of their own, I was happy to be all on board with it.
[Note: As I had nowhere else to really go into this, given the effort Laika puts into properly filming for the 3D format, for those who appreciate that sort of thing, The Boxtrolls looks pretty great in 3D.]
Winnie: No! Don’t scratch those! That’s why they’re called privates!