While The Boxtrolls doesn't represent the studio's best work, it's nonetheless another visually-inventive, witty, and energetic fairy tale adventure to add to Laika's mantlepiece.
The Boxtrolls takes place in Cheesebridge, a posh Victorian-era town where the wealthy and upper-class members of society devote much of their time to sampling the finest in stinky cheeses. When a human baby is said to have been kidnapped by the Boxtrolls - mysterious creatures that roam the streets of Cheesbridge only at night - the pest exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), agrees to eradicate these "monsters", in exchange for his induction into the most elite faction of Cheesebridge society (a.k.a. the White Hats).
The missing human infant, however, is really an orphaned boy, who is named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and cared for by the Boxtrolls - oddball creatures that reside in an underground cavern, dress in recycled cardboard boxes, and spend their days building contraptions from trash. For some ten years, Eggs and his family do their best to simply evade capture by Snatcher and his cronies - until one fateful night, when Eggs meets a young human girl named Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning).
An adaptation of the novel "Here Be Monsters!" by Alan Snow, The Boxtrolls is the latest quirky film offering from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio behind such critically-acclaimed features as Coraline and ParaNorman. While The Boxtrolls doesn't represent the studio's best work, it's nonetheless another visually-inventive, witty, and energetic fairy tale adventure to add to Laika's mantlepiece.
Directors Graham Annable (in his feature debut) and Anthony Stacchi (Open Season) both have decades of experience as VFX artists and/or animators - something that serves them well on The Boxtrolls. Thematically, their movie provides something of a Charles Dickens-style satirical vision of Victorian society and manners; Cheesebridge's rigid class structure and questionable values are symbolized visually through a world that is distinctly unpleasant-looking and populated by people who are, by and large, often equally repugnant in appearance. This is all done in a stylish fashion that reflects the handiwork of countless talented crafts folk (animators, model builders, scenic artists, and so forth).
The end result is that The Boxtrolls, like past Laika features, is a rich visual feast, even for younger moviegoers who care more about the Boxtrolls - who are adorably "gross" and entertaining - and less about the film's many jabs at elitism, privilege, and related issues. Speaking of the visual style, the movie can, in fact, be recommended for viewing in 3D. The Boxtrolls doesn't offer much in the way of pop-out 3D effects (something worth considering, of course), but every frame of the film is so layered with eye-catching details - many of which are brought to life through incredibly realistic sound design - that 3D makes the shots easier to unpack and feel more immersive.
Where The Boxtrolls falls short is with regard to the screenplay by Irena Brignull (scrip editor on Shakespeare in Love) and Adam Pava (Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends). There are a handful of interesting setups (see: Winnie's relationship with her father) introduced early on, but wind up getting dropped and/or not properly payed off during the third act; by that point, the central plot thread has become a fairly conventional kids' film narrative. On the whole, the story is solid, but Boxtrolls ultimately lacks the unpredictability and/or poignance of Laika's best work - and isn't as memorable for it.
Eggs, voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark on Game of Thrones), is a perfectly fine off-kiler protagonist, though he's mostly upstaged by the characters around him... and not just the many cute Boxtrolls either, many of which have simple, yet distinct, personalities. No, it's Winnie (Elle Fanning) who turns out to be the far more interesting and fully-rounded human player, with her pushy manners, outspoken nature, and weird fan-like obsession with the macabre stories about the Boxtrolls.
Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley does excellent voice work as Archibald Skinner, the scheming villain who, it turns out, has dreams of joining Cheesebridge's elite that are perhaps more harmful to himself than those around him. Skinner's cronies are likewise quite fun during their scenes together (where they offer clever self-aware commentary on the moral implications of their work), with their voices provided by Nick Frost (The World's End), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock). Similarly, Jared Harris strikes just the right note of refined obliviousness, voicing Winnie's dad and the leader of the White Hats, the cheese-obsessed Lord Portley-Rind.
The Boxtrolls is yet another delightful stop-motion animated movie that illustrates Laika's dedication to crafting idiosyncratic worlds and characters, in order to continue bringing worthwhile and often unique stories to life on the big screen. While the film is not quite able to manage the balance of thematic substance and narrative creativity with technical proficiency (not as well as it could have), it's still a charmingly off-beat fairy tale - one with eye candy to spare. On those grounds, there's good justification for you to make the trip to the theater and check out the movie for yourself.
The Boxtrolls is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 97 minutes long and is Rated PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor.
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