Oregon-based animation studio Laika is not one of the better known animation shops. However, over the course of the past five years and three feature films, it has built a reputation for producing high-quality, conceptually bold films with a slightly creepy air about them. These include “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.”
"The Boxtrolls," directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, is adapted from the children’s book “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow. In it, there is a world underneath the streets of the proper town of Cheesebridge, a subterranean land inhabited by the creatures of the title. The Boxtrolls are ugly but innocent “monsters” who love to build things out of discarded trash. The humans above, however, out of ignorance view these shy engineers as vicious predators, ready to snatch away babies at a moment’s notice.
This misunderstanding is used by human Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), the town boxtroll exterminator, who spreads fear about the harmless creatures in order to climb the ranks of society. However, a wrench is thrown into his nefarious plans when Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a human raised by the boxtrolls, returns above ground and back in human society, ready to reveal the truth about the "monsters."
“The Boxtrolls” spends a lot of time ignoring the story, though, and simply showing the subterranean world of its misunderstood creatures. That actually is a great choice by the directors. The stop-motion is a great style to adopt here, as it makes the boxtrolls come alive in an approachable way. They are not fanciful creations flitting about like the Roadrunner, but real, almost understandable things. They communicate through grunts, which makes entire swathes of the film dialogue-free, another great choice. That emphasizes the high-quality animation, turning the film almost into a meditation on the state of animation today and the peculiarities of these characters rather than distracting the viewer with whatever particular mundane story is being followed. This provides plenty of room for "slices of life," filling the screen with humorous sketches that entertain while creating a bond of sympathy between the audience and the boxtrolls. The extended introductory scenes about the world underneath the city are the high point of this stop motion animated feature film.
However, that also becomes the film's major drawback, because it is so good that it cheapens what follows. Put quite plainly and bluntly, and with absolutely no disrespect intended, the Laika folks are worlds better at animation than they are at storytelling. The same thing was apparent in "Coraline," with its wildly imaginative and inventive parallel universe but somewhat pedestrian narrative. Once the plot gets rolling in "The Boxtrolls," we get a fairly straightforward tale of self-acceptance and not judging others, that we shouldn't judge books by their covers, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!" My, like we haven't seen that before. The fault lies with the screenwriters, Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, who went down to the shop, bought the paint-by-numbers kit on the front shelf right there at eye level, and blithely took it home (before you get on me for being critical about them, note that I went to the trouble of mentioning them, and remember the old adage about spelling the names right).
To its credit, the film does throw in some jabs at power and corruption, but were you expecting something different? If so, you will be disappointed. There is a bad guy who is not telling the truth so that he can enrich himself at the expense of misunderstood creatures who just want to be friends. I can safely leave it to your imagination as to what kind of fate awaits him. In fact, that one-sentence pitch tells you the entire story right there - after that, it is simply a matter of drawing in the frames.
|The Minions - er, boxtrolls|
So, we get Eggs having funny experiences adapting to the world above. Then, it turns out to be not so easy proving that his friends below the surface are harmless and just want to be friends: some folks don't want that known. Blah blah blah, you've seen it all before. Don't expect Hemingway here.
Now, back to the good stuff: the visuals are gorgeous, even as the film explores the grotesque and horrifying corners of Cheesebridge. The characters are larger-than-life, and the settings that might seem out of place in a more conventional animated film feel just right in context.
The voice cast is terrific. Naturally, and this also is no surprise, the villain is more interesting than our hero Eggs. Ben Kingsley is one of the greatest actors working today, an actor's actor, and here he takes on yet another bizarre role. Snatcher is a great addition to Kingsley’s résumé, and there no doubt will be sequels. Snatcher’s minions are voiced by Tracy Morgan, Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade. Just as with the minions in "Despicable Me," they bring comic relief to their boss’s dark plans. Minion Ayoade is particularly funny as a henchman wracked with doubts about his moral status. The rest of the cast also gets rounded out admirably, including Elle Fanning as Eggs’ only human friend, Winnie Portley-Rind, and Jared Harris as her pompous, out-of-touch father, and so on. Dakota Fanning, incidentally, starred in Laika's "Coraline," so I don't know if the Fanning family own stock in the company or whatever the situation is with that.
The point of a review to give you a heads up about what you can expect. If every review were simply "Oh, isn't it all so wonderful, run off and see it now," they would be worthless. See "The Boxtrolls" for an enchanting view into another world. Just don't expect anything outstandingly creative beyond the wonderful animation itself.
Below is the official trailer.