While it doesn’t quite achieve the same snappiness and darkness as its predecessors (Coraline and ParaNorman), The Boxtrolls still proves to be another winner from the stop motion wunderkinds at LAIKA. This time slightly toning down the darkness until the final act and going for a more kid friendly feel with some rude humour along the way, it’s still defiantly perceptive for an animated film, proving that the upstart studio can hold their own against the Disneys and Pixars of the world.
A loose adaptation of Alan Snow’s playfully imaginative novel Here Be Monsters!, the story takes place in the vaguely Victorian burg of Cheesebridge, where the titular creatures – underground trolls who use discarded boxes and packaging for clothes – are mythical scourges that the nefarious Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) has made it his duty to eradicate. In truth, the boxtrolls are shy, gentle souls and masterful inventors that took in an abandoned infant human they dubbed Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wight) and raised him as one of their own. Snatcher desperately hopes that his hunting of the creatures will land him at the table of the cheese loving nobility (led by a gleefully oblivious Jared Harris), but Eggs and the young daughter of the town’s leader (Elle Fanning) have teamed up to hopefully show everyone that these creatures are here to help, not to harm.
While the animation on display – a blend of traditional stop motion, hand drawn scenery, and modern 3D computer generated imagery – represents the best the studio has produced to date, it still has a small handful of problems. It’s possibly the least imaginative and most predictable film the studio has produced thus far in terms of plotting, with relatively few surprises and even some gags that have been recycled most notably from Monty Python and the Wallace and Gromit films. It all works, but given the films that came before The Boxtrolls, one would probably hoping for just a little bit more than some light entertainment and just a smidge more originality in the story department. And at least the film is cognizant of its nods to Pythoneque comedic anarchy by letting Eric Idle sing the song that plays over the closing credits.
But those criticisms are minor and fleeting considering how strong everything else manages to be some of the strongest work they’ve produced. Directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable make sure their film has more little details per square inch than possibly any other animated film ever created. To say that the care placed into the visual aesthetic of The Boxtrolls was painstaking would be an understatement. Visually it’s the kind of film you could analyze frame by frame endlessly and still not find every subtle gag or reference. The action set pieces are similarly more elaborate in the steampunk tinged final third. The films from LAIKA have been consistently engaging and dazzling because they’re obviously made by artisans that deeply care about the level of product they’re giving back to audiences (something that’s hilariously lampooned if you watch through the final credits).
Similarly, writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava are also injecting sly bits of modern parable into their kiddie story. The film’s message about the privileged often overlooking deeper problems in hopes that someone else will deal with them feels particularly prescient, while the material’s love for the marginalized and disenfranchised creatures at the heart of it all remains timeless. It’s definitely a film that kids and adults can appreciate in equal and opposite ways. All family oriented entertainment should be like this, and it often seems easier said than done. The crew at LAIKA just seem to understand this better than most.
The voice cast also does their part splendidly, with Kingsley hamming it up as a ludicrously high minded miscreant, and Tracy Morgan, Richard Ayoade, and Nick Frost providing perfect comedic relief as his sometimes conflicted henchmen. Simon Pegg gets an off the wall kind of role that’s too good to spoil since it’s tied into the film’s biggest plot twist, and Harris has never had the chance to be as funny as he gets to be here.
It might get a smidge too dark at the end considering how light the rest of the film comes across, making it feel a bit less tonally assured than Coraline or ParaNorman were, but at least it has confidence that the core audience of youngsters will be able to take whatever’s thrown at them here. Viewers are in good hands with the LAIKA crew, and here’s hoping they can keep up their winning ways with maybe a little bit more attention to the creative aspects of the story next time instead of going all in on the stunning visuals.