There’s something refreshing about the stop motion animation films that come out of the animation studio Laika. (They include, “Coraline,” and “Paranorman.”) These films aren’t as vibrant and colorful as most mainstream animated features; the characters are often oddly proportioned and look malnourished, as if they’ve gotten the plague. And instead of being completely goofy and upbeat, they also try to tackle darker, more adult themes--without being too dark—to keep the parents in the audience interested. In a sea of similar looking mainstream animated movies the Laika films stand out.
Their latest, “The Boxtrolls,” is no different. Visually, it’s very dreary, taking place primarily during foggy, rainy nights. The town where all of the action takes place practically comes straight from a German expressionist movie; the buildings are jagged, crooked and smashed together. And I don’t think you could say any of the characters look “cute” in a conventional sense. Yet, the movie still comes fully to life, popping off the screen despite its dim color palette. Co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi move the action along at a snappy pace, practically every frame is bustling and humming with activity. There’s hardly a dead moment in the entire movie.
Most of the activity and high energy level come from the Boxtrolls themselves. We’re first introduced to them--their small stature, nearly hairless bodies, pale blue skin and Gargoyle like facial features – as they scurry about in an alley late at night. Rummaging through trash cans and junk heaps for food and supplies. Grunting and speaking gibberish, they resemble grotesque versions of the Minions from “Despicable Me.” Of course they’re not actually grotesque or malevolent but instead nurturing and shy—they wear cardboard boxes and hide in them like hermit crabs-- they’ve even adopted a human baby named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) into their underground society.
“The Boxtrolls” tells a classic kids’ story of misunderstanding and fearing what one doesn’t know, leading to the upbeat conclusion that everyone can change. Due to an incident that happened years ago the humans now view Boxtrolls as vicious, baby eating menaces. The cheese loving upper class—I’m not kidding, the rich people love their cheese— led by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) decide to have the entire species exterminated. So, it’s up to Eggs and Winnie, (Elle Fanning) the daughter of Portley-Rinds, to try and set things right.
All of this is handled in a mostly entertaining, pleasurable manner. Heavy-handed in some areas but I guess that’s to be expected in a children’s film. The kid heroes are developed just enough to be engaging and likable animated movie protagonists. Eggs predictably goes through an identity crisis—is he a boy or a Boxtroll? Why can’t he be both? —and Winnie is a standard spunky, curious girl who doesn’t fit in with her snobby, narrow-minded parents and the upper class lifestyle.
However, it’s the character of Archibald Snatcher (a virtually unrecognizable voice from Ben Kingsley) that makes “The Boxtrolls” all the more interesting. Right from the start we know Snatcher is the movie’s antagonist not just because he’s in charge of the Boxtroll extermination but also because he looks like a cross between a zombie and a goblin, with a little bit of The Penguin thrown in. Though Snatcher isn’t merely a one-dimensional cartoon villain hellbent on killing the Boxtrolls. He accepts the extermination job because he wants so badly to be accepted by Portley-Rind and his upper class friends. He wants to be included in their exclusive cheese-tasting club. In his spare time, Snatcher holds mock cheese tasting club meetings with his cronies even though he’s allergic to the food and dresses up as a woman in order to frequent upper-class parties and receive even more attention from the wealthy. But Portley-Rind and his friends find Snatcher repulsive and have no desire to let him into their club, into their lifestyle.
“The Boxtrolls” may be one of the few recent animated movies to openly critique the upper class. Portley-Rind is so self-centered that he’d rather spend all his time with his cheese club friends than with his daughter, and would rather spend money on a gigantic cheese wheel—called the “Bree-hemoth--” than build an orphanage. (The movie has many clever cheese/dairy related puns like this.) Snatcher is clearly supposed to be the villain but honestly I felt more sympathy towards him than I did Portley-Rind or the other rich people. In the end, Snatcher takes things too far but his motivations for doing what he does cut much deeper than simply: he’s a bad guy who wants to do bad things. He’s the most compelling aspect of the entire picture.
Of course all of this will go right over young children’s heads, but that’s ok. While the kiddies in the crowd enjoy the simple, kinetic antics of Eggs, Winnie and the Boxtrolls, parents can be entertained by Snatcher’s strenuous—and also sad—attempts to be accepted by the upper-class. In my view, any animated movie that’s given a wide, theatrical release should contain something for both kids and adults.
“The Boxtrolls” is easily Laika’s best movie. As much as I enjoyed “Paranorman” and “Coraline” both ran into their share of dead moments, especially “Paranorman.” I was never bored once during “Boxtrolls”; it’s consistently entertaining and clever. It never meanders, the animation is top notch and it can be easily enjoyed by us adults. You don’t need much more than that from a mainstream animated movie.