The Boxtrolls (2014)
100 min., rated PG.
The art of stop-motion animation seems like an arduous, intricate process, creating a whole world with miniature models and then shooting and setting up so many single frames at a time. When a film of that style comes off so lovingly handmade, something's being done right. So far, the folks at the Oregon-based Laika Studios are beyond reproach of being devoted to their craft and transcending Gothic surrealist art into entertainment with their last two marvelously special, wonderfully dark and strange features, 2009's "Coraline" and 2012's "ParaNorman." Their latest effort, "The Boxtrolls," doesn't quite scale those sophisticated penny-dreadful gems, nor is it a middle-of-the-road misfire. There is just something so admirable and richly detailed about directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable's stop-motion adaptation of Alan Snow's novel "Here Be Monsters!" Simply, it is too impishly charming, inventive and spectacularly mounted with passion and vision galore to downplay.
In the Victorian town of Cheesebridge ("A Gouda Place to Live!"), the denizens have it fixed in their heads that underground-dwelling boxtrolls are bad, but they're really misunderstood creatures who wear different boxes to distinguish themselves. Orphaned by his inventor father (for reasons that come to light later) when he was just a baby, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright of "Game of Thrones" fame) has grown up with the boxtrolls, being conditioned to live and eat like one, and doesn't know any different. He isn't one much for hygiene, living in the subterranean depths of his foster family's lair made from junk hoarded from above. Up there, snarling exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), along with his three toadies Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), wants to join the elite society of white hats to dine on cheese with Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), so he tries doing away with any boxtroll he can find on the cobblestone streets at night. When the lord's daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), a precocious girl obsessed with boxtrolls and expecting they are capable of "biting the flesh off her bones," witnesses Eggs leading the alleged monsters, she discovers the boy has no idea he's a human being. Will Winnie team up with Eggs and his boxtroll family to stop Snatcher's plan?
Leaches, tranvestism and child abandonment; if you have wanted more of each in your animated films, "The Boxtrolls" goes there, but the viewer won't find "mountains of bones and rivers of blood" as Winnie hoped. In loosely adapting the source material, screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava boldly touch upon mature themes of genocide, social climbing and indifferent parenting, as well as a "Don't judge a book by its cover" message, in ways that do not talk down to children, although it could be an awkward ride home for parents. There is also a noticeable effort in injecting wit for the adults, like plenty of cheese puns and a joke involving Milk and Curd Way that earns an audible rimshot effect. That the makers take enough time to construct an actual story is as stupendous as their bread and butter. Perfecting the jerkiness into a smoother look without losing the charm, Laika has constructed another meticulous, aesthetically dazzling world of the upstairs/downstairs variety. The steampunk-styled animation is drool-worthy, and the design of the boxtrolls and Snatcher, in particular, are as stylized and delightfully exaggerated as we have seen before in "Coraline" and "ParaNorman."
The grunting, bug-eating boxtrolls headlining the film are strangely endearing, but their makers haven't really given them a lot to do. The real protagonists are Eggs and Winnie, who can both learn from one another. Eggs is virtually Mowgli, raised by boxtrolls instead of wolves, and has had a father figure all this time in Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), but Winnie teaches him how to be a proper boy and shake hands with upper-class party guests (even if he's not pleased to meet them); inevitably, he doesn't have the most genteel manners. Winnie, on the other hand, loves hearing the allegedly gory stories of the boxtrolls and doesn't get much attention from her father. Isaac Hempstead Wright lends a warm voice to lost boy Eggs, but it's Elle Fanning who brings the spunk, and her taste for the macabre makes her even more of a delight. Bravo to the rest of the voice talent for mostly masking their typically recognizable voices and not distracting from the story. Ben Kingsley is highly amusing and deliciously nasty as the dastardly villain Archibald Snatcher, practically an animated Timothy Spall, who obsessively eats a bit of cheese, no matter if his lactose allergy results in his entire face swelling up like a grotesquely shaped gourd. In one of the film's several subversive touches that keep in with the studio's progression, Snatcher crossdresses as fear-mongering drag queen alter ago Madame Frou Frou to spread the word about the "evil" trolls when he isn't snatching them up. Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade are also self-aware as henchmen Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, who see themselves as "the good guys" until the simple-minded stooges begin to question their master's motives.
With the predominantly British voice cast and the characters' love of cheese, the film reminds of Aardman Animations' output, particularly "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," as well as the off-kilter, hand-in-hand sensibilities of Roald Dahl and Tim Burton. As a comedy of manners and little, sharp-toothed gremlins making the most unconventional familial unit, "The Boxtrolls" has imagination, heart, morals and a mind that thinks outside of, if you will, the box from homogenized animated fare. It might not have the enduring "classic" status or hit with the same emotional impact of Laika's previous treats, but it's enough of a quirky, appreciably offbeat achievement to stand out and deserve an audience. Laika has proven to be Pixar's biggest rival with their rapidly evolving, time-consuming style of animation and handling of story and characters, and that's not such a bad place to be. Come for the visuals, stay for the heart.