Review written by Mike Fishman
Set in an imaginary early 19th Century England, this feature animation from Laika Studios (Coraline, ParaNorman) is another step forward for stop-motion animation, a painstaking process in which it can take filmmakers a week of work to create four seconds of footage. For The Boxtrolls, the creative team at Laika incorporated 3D printing to create literally millions of character’s faces, many of which were only used once. The payoff is apparent from the first frame, with character’s faces more expressive than we’ve seen before, particularly the eyes, generally the weakest aspect of animated characters. As is often the case with animation it’s the little touches and degrees of improvement that make all the difference. And particularly in stop-motion it’s the details that enthrall: tiny buttons on sleeves, shoes with laces, the character’s pushed and pulled faces. This being England in the 19th Century, one of the running gags is characters sporting horribly crooked teeth, bared so often and with such relish they practically earn their own credit, adding not just dark humor but a sense of realism, albeit exaggerated.
The film is a visual delight and several big scenes are truly exhilarating, especially a set-piece that takes us deep beneath the city streets to the boxtroll’s lair. The story (based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters!) concerns an infant boy who is saved from danger by boxtrolls, grayish creatures who live underground and use discarded boxes to hide their bodies and from which they get their names: Shoes, Fish, Eggs, etc. Archibald Snatcher, an evil exterminator voiced with ghoulish flare by Ben Kingsley, strikes a deal with the city to destroy the boxtrolls in exchange for membership into the mayor’s cheese-obsessed council, even though Snatcher is allergic to cheese. His denial of the allergy, even when his face puffs up horribly, is one of several ironic touches running through this witty film; he is determined to become part of the upper class even if it kills him. A wicked wit is apparent as well in the absurd scenes of Snatcher dressed as a female chanteuse and performing a ditty for the public demonizing the boxtrolls. Yes, that’s right, a cross-dressing performance voiced by Sir Ben.
Of course, there’s a girl (Elle Fanning) who helps save the boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright); it is after all the very rare animated film that doesn’t feel the need to include or base their story upon a young romance. Contemporary classics Brave and Frozen are certainly changing that and refreshingly, the female character in The Boxtrolls is a feisty fiercely independent girl who is more curious than frightened of the creatures and the one doing the saving. Upon arriving in their lair and finding them surprisingly timid she wonders aloud where the storied bones of dead children are, disappointedly exclaiming, “I was promised rivers of blood and bones. Lots of bones.” More humor comes in the form of Snatcher’s henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade), dressed and speaking as if they were waiting for Godot, constantly questioning whether they are good or evil and riffing hilariously during the closing credits about the possibility of being controlled by some unseen forces or hands (!) as the filmmakers use time-lapse photography to reveal a puppeteer manipulating the characters. It’s a wonderfully self-referential, tongue-in-cheek scene, and part of what makes The Boxtrolls so smart.
The Boxtrolls will be available for streaming and on DVD in January 2015.
Visit the official website: http://www.laika.com/
Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.