For over a decade, the gold standard in feature length animated films (dominant among audiences and critics alike) has been Pixar studios. However, in recent years the bloom has left the rose a bit, and a parade of sequels and lesser outings has opened up the door for another studio to step up and claim the crown. Enter Laika studios, the Portland-based stop-motion experts who burst onto the scene in 2009 with Henry Selick’s Coraline and continued on without the animation guru for 2012’s ParaNorman. Stop motion is an often thankless, work-intensive style, but its unique, stitched together and endearingly flawed style always makes it stand out in the crowd, especially with this generation’s reliance on sterile computer generated fare that has managed to homogenize the feel of family animated entertainment. Released this weekend, The Boxtrolls is only Laika’s third effort (a longer production cycle is necessary for stop motion), but it stands out among the crowd immediately.
Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Staccho, and written by Irena Birgnull and Adam Pava (from the children’s book Here Be Monsters!), The Boxtrolls is set in the sleepy Victorian-era town of Cheesbridge, wherein the citizenry believes themselves to be under the terrible thumb of the eponymous boxtrolls, subterranean dwellers who appear to have an appetite for stealing children. The protagonist of the story is one of those supposedly stolen children, a boy raised by the trolls as one of their own who goes by the name Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright of Game of Thrones fame). Named as such for the box he wears, Eggs knows little of the world above, but must learn quickly when the machinations of an exterminator named Snatcher (voiced like a sewage-y river by Ben Kingsley) with upward mobility on his mind threaten the very lives of his adopted family of “monsters.”
Technically, The Boxtrolls is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, peerless in its detail and depth of field. The boxtrolls are tinkerers and hoarders by trade, and their underground caverns are marked by a series of increasingly complex Rube Goldberg machines that allow them to play music, scrounge for food or reach the surface world to find more detritus for their contraptions. The village of Cheesbridge may be Victorian in their trappings, but its foggy streets and, angled, menacing buildings evoke something more along the lines of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other German expressionist nightmare scapes. Every frame teems with life and excitement, with striking character designs to match the imaginative settings. Each trolls feels unique and lived-in, allowing them to be easily distinguished even without their signature boxes that give them their names. The humans are a mix of the garish, grotesque powdered aristocracy, with their tall hats, exaggerated facial hair and blushed cheeks, and the grimy downtrodden working class schlubs. Most impressive is the sheer volume of characters and layered action in the busier scenes; considering what is required to make scenes like that work in the stop-motion field, the animators at Laika are not cutting any corners on this one.
The voice acting matches the stellar production design. While Wright and Elle Fanning (playing the daughter of an upper crust elite who befriends Eggs) are perfectly fine, but the adult cast is fantastic. Kingsley is thunderous and nigh-unrecognizable as Snatcher, and is buoyed by his motley crew of henchmen. Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout (voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) spend most of their scenes attempting to convince themselves that they are the good guys as the actions of Snatcher and their other cohort, the gleefully psychopathic Mr. Gristle (Tracey Morgan), become more baldly evil. The cast is further bolstered by additional strong work from Jared Harris, Simon Pegg and Toni Collette in smaller roles. Snatcher, Trout and Pickles are the clear high water mark, but the whole cast entertains mightily (and fans of Pickles and Trout will be rewarded by staying through the credits).
Indeed, the only weakness to be found in The Boxtrolls is the simplicity of its plotting. It is here that the film feels most like family entertainment; there are deep and resonant themes of the importance of family and the unshakeable resolve of children (none of which should come as a surprise to those who have seen Laika’s other works), but these are little more than surface reads that could have benefitted from a more robust screenplay. The simple plot could be a consolation to the much more visually ambitious and labor-intensive production design, but there is no question that The Boxtrolls is lacking narratively. It feels held back where it should not be, offering tantalizing glimpses of a bigger world with more complex themes of class and economic stratification that remains unexplored and underdeveloped. Unlike Coraline or ParaNorman, the screenplay feels more like an afterthought here.
In some ways, The Boxtrolls feels quite a bit like Pixar’s Brave, another animated film from a respected studio with strong production values and an undercooked narrative. The Boxtrolls is a noticeably better film than Brave, with a much more interesting world, a stronger art style and better voice acting, but it still has that lingering feeling of missed opportunity. With their long production cycles and strong aesthetic, Laika films have quite a bit to live up to, and while the story is a let down, there is more than enough here to enchant the eyes and the mind. There is so much love and detail and imagination poured into every frame of its 96 painstaking minutes that its narrative simplicity cannot be considered a deal breaker. For all of its flaws, The Boxtrolls remains accomplished filmmaking and Laika remains the most exciting animation company working today.