To reduce critical engagement with a movie to a handicap of an awards race is, I have said before, a bad strategy. That said, damn, the animated feature category this year looks strong. Yes, we can add Laika’s The Boxtrolls to the list of exemplary animated films to grace the big screen this year, a somewhat familiar but exceedingly well-told story wrapped it all up in a jaw-droppingly beautiful package that you’ll hardly believe is stop motion.
The story is actually quite reminiscent of Tarzan, with just a couple twists. Eggs (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead Wright) is our hero this time, a human boy that the citizens of Cheesebridge believe was kidnapped as an infant and eaten by the vicious Boxtrolls, sort of monsters-under-the-bed, or maybe even more accurately given their penchant for subterranean habitation, trolls-under-the bridge types who roam the streets and sewers of Cheesebridge by night. This paranoia is fanned by Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), the local constable who aspires to the posh circles of the local elite and has been promised membership if he can eliminate the Boxtroll scourge.
Of course, the Boxtrolls are more like the family pets than wild wolves, and Eggs was not eaten, but raised as a Boxtroll by foster father Fish (all the Boxtrolls are named by the boxes they wear and live in). In what has to be at once the most emotionally resonant and plot-effective sequence of the entire film, we see early on how Eggs and Fish spend Eggs’s formative years building a bond somewhere between father and son and two brothers. The Boxtrolls are brilliant tinkers, spending the nights digging through Cheesebridge’s trash (and anything else not solidly bolted down) in search of materials for brilliant, Rube Goldberg-style inventions. After finding an old record and record player, Eggs and Fish develop an affinity for music that becomes a signifier for the deep bond of their relationship throughout the rest of the movie. What makes the sequence doubly exceptional is that it’s set against the ever-decreasing number of Boxtrolls in the community (thanks to the terror that is Mr. Snatcher and his associates) and that it perfectly explains most of the main characters as well as the basis for the rest of the plot with hardly a word spoken. This one doesn’t come right at the very front of the movie, but still, when you compare favorably to the famous opening sequence of Pixar’s Up, you’re doing something very, very right.
While the film struggles to maintain this high through the rest of its runtime, it never is too far off from it, either. The plot itself is fairly simple – Snatcher wants to rid the streets of the remaining Boxtrolls, and Eggs must venture into the world of daylight and humans to try to prevent the death of his family. What this leaves room for is some truly delicious character work to sit on the palate. Town mayor Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) is fairly one note but hilarious as a father who cares more about his high society than his daughter, leaving the adventurous and bombastic Winnie (Elle Fanning) plenty of room to involve herself in Eggs’s plight. Snatcher deftly walks the line of a villain that is both despicable and pitiable as a man who desires exactly what is worst for him, and his amusingly conflicted underlings Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) might have been my favorite non-Boxtroll characters in the film. Which means, of course, that directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi along with the rest of the Laika crew have done a pretty wonderful job of bringing to life these odd gremlin creatures who speak in Minion-esque gibberish.
And then there’s the technical prowess of the entire production, which would be impossible to overlook if it weren’t so nearly flawless that it becomes easy to take for granted. Earlier this week, our Gabriel Urbina gave a wonderful summation of the appeal of stop motion animation, but Laika’s gone out of their way to defy any easy explanation for their visuals. Facial animations stick out as containing stop motion’s characteristic hitchiness, but everything else is so smoothly animated and beautifully vibrant that it’s only by comparison that this seems a major flaw. The sheer complexity of many of the extended, crowd-filled shots in The Boxtrolls boggles the mind. It’s something we’ve come to expect from computer-animated features which can digitally layer in as many extras as are needed, yet (to Gabriel’s point) while the film’s massive stop-motion scenes are every bit as vibrant as its CGI counterparts, The Boxtrolls retains a foothold in a more tactile reality that, simply put, is more detailed and more fun to watch.
The quibbles I do have with The Boxtrolls I’ve mostly touched on already. After a strong start, the movie does lose some energy as it moves into less inventive – and thus more predictable – territory later on. In conjunction with the tactile reality of stop motion, there’s also an artistic and thematic focus on the marginally creepy which works to the film’s favor most of the time by giving it added weight, but it does veer into the offputtingly grotesque at a few points, such as Winnie’s repeated and mostly unexplained interest in the truly gory. Parents should be aware that while there’s nothing exactly objectionable here, this is a PG movie and can get appropriately intense at times.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
This one was a bit on the fence for me because there are some issues that I can’t entirely ignore. But the more I think about it, the more I remember just how much fun it was to watch this movie. There’s a delightful mix of the humorous and the macabre that I’ve barely had time to touch on here. But moreover, this is a movie that just fits together so well on narrative, character, and visual bases that it just works. It works in spite of any criticisms that can be leveled at it, and is simply a treat to behold.