The Boxtrolls, Laika Studios‘ third outing, sees more of the fledgling studio’s highly-demanding, signature stop motion animation come to life onscreen, flush with smart, though not game changing, camerawork and charming characters aplenty. Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi with a script adapted from Alan Snow‘s “Here Be Monsters”, The Boxtrolls follows a orphaned boy growing up with in underground society of steampunk, gadget-friendly trolls, unfairly maligned by society overhead.
Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones) is Eggs, so named because the box that clothes his is an old eggs box. This is SOP in Boxtroll world. A squat-faced troll with a high heel on his box is called “Shoe”. Oil Can has an oil can on his box as Fish’s box, you guessed it, has a doodle of a fish skeleton. Blink and you’ll miss the troll named “Fragile.” Adopted by this society of cardboard-wearing, nonsense-talking troglodytes, Eggs joins his brethren trolls on missions to hunt down useful garbage from the city streets above but must be careful to avoid the vigilant net of Archibald Snatcher. For years the city has commissioned Snatcher to hunt down and capture all the Boxtrolls, assuming an incident in which a baby went missing was on their three-fingered hands.
Those first handful of minutes spent with Eggs, Fish and Shoe are without words and are nonetheless quietly moving. Similar almost to Wall-E, the absence of language doesn’t alienate us from these characters so much as let us get to know them from an emotional perspective. They goobly gook their way through things, like mute children. Without all the chatty chatty, we become fast friends with these ruckus-causing nocturnal hermits through their actions and their innocence.
As Snatcher, Sir Ben Kingsley – in nearly unrecognizable voice work – chews through scenery like it’s bubble gum. He pontificates evilly, obsessed with the one thing in the world that he cannot have: power… or is it cheese? It’s confusing because in the world of The Boxtrolls, they go hand in hand. The city leaders, The Men in White Hats, sit around and consume imported cheeses like they’ve just finished a stint on Survivor. Rather than sign the proposition for a new children’s hospital, they dine on a foreign Gruyere or a odorous bleu. The jabbing political undertones laid throughout are as subtly hysterical as Snatcher’s sole mission to access the revered tasting room, even though he is dangerously allergic to cheese.
Strange, singular character motivations like that work so well for Boxtrolls that we almost forget to care about how this story has been told a thousand times before. Snatcher is the perfect movie baddie just as his philosophical sidekick Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) is the perfectly muddy moral compass. Frost’s bumbling yet well-meaning character is responsible for an unmatched percentage of the laughs. Even with sparse screen time, he whips the comedy into shape like the folks in Paranorman never could.
Missing though in The Boxtrolls is the dark palette that had defined previous Laika efforts Paranorman and Coraline and with it much of the really next level visual flourishes. In Paranorman, the sky turns to breathtaking streaks of neon purple and afterlife green. In Coraline‘s third act, the claymation world comes to piece in bits and strips and it makes for absolutely stunning work. In Boxtrolls, the environs stagnate and fail to provide a sense of artistic progress. Further, there’s really only three or four settings for the entire film. In their sandbox, they play beautifully. I just wish there was more to the sandbox.
But that’s because this time around, Laika has moved the focus onto the characters, who look better realized than ever before. They’re much less choppy, almost to the point of appearing to be the work of CGI. Surprisingly in this case, with more precision comes more charm. And though The Boxtrolls is an unequivocal step up from the visually stunning but emotionally lacking Paranorman, it unfortunately doesn’t come close to the crazy heights of Coraline. Perhaps I have an unfair appraisal of Coraline (the first time I saw it, I pulled an unprecedented move and immediately watched it again) but you need a ladder to heaven to achieve such animated perfection. Though still in the shadow of that artistic behemoth, Boxtrolls is one of the finest animated films of the past few years.