Hidden amongst the computer animation juggernauts of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, stop-motion studio Laika have consistently delivered some of the most mature and imaginative animated films of the last decade. Both ‘Coraline’ (2009) and ‘ParaNorman’ (2012) were commercial and critical successes, each earning a Best Animated Film nomination at the Oscars. Following in their footsteps is ‘The Boxtrolls’, which once again combines Laika’s unusual and wicked style with the technical wonder of stop-animation, and certain to continue the studio's success with audiences and critics alike.
A curfew is placed on a hill-top city when a child is abducted by a group of Boxtrolls, hideous creatures from the sewers that creep around at night stealing random objects and wearing cardboard boxes. Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) is tasked with capturing every Boxtroll in the city, after which he will be inducted into the aristocratic order of the White Hats, an organisation obsessed with cheese. In truth, the baby is brought up by the kind and clever boxtrolls and nicknamed Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) because of the box he is given. Once Eggs is grown up, he becomes inquisitive about the world, and as Snatcher nabs his Boxtroll family one by one, he is forced to find a way to save his unusual clan, with the help of the morbid and eccentric Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), the young daughter of Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the leader of the White Hats.
Adapted from Alan Snow’s novel ‘Here Be Monsters!’ by Irena Bignull and Adam Pava, and directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, ‘The Boxtrolls’ continues to play with the gothic-like aesthetic already established in the studio’s other films. However, instead of feeling like a retread of familiar ground, the visual world of ‘The Boxtrolls’ is tremendously exciting and detailed, with the stop-motion animation further refined to the point of almost hypnotic seamlessness. The design of the film is absolutely top-notch, and rather than going for a more stylised look, the team behind the film opt for a more natural, less caricatured look for the characters. There’s a constant sense of movement to the film, each frame filled to the brim with detail that it requires multiple views just to comprehend it all.
One of the trademarks of Laika’s films that set it apart is their careful balance between content accessible to a young audience and difficult or dark material, and ‘The Boxtrolls’ is another example of why Laika have a proficiency with this the other studios should envy. It never talks down to a young audience, happy to discuss or present ideas or truths that might at first seem too complex or heavy for them. Much of the guts has been taken out of children's films these days in an effort to be more appropriate or socially correct, but these guys won’t have a bar of it. They make no effort to hide the ideas at the heart of the film, chiefly that "family" is a fluid concept that does not adhere to the tradition of a man, a woman and children, and also doesn’t do it clumsily, allowing it to come through the narrative and action. There is tremendous heart in this film, and you can’t help but be taken by it.
‘The Boxtrolls’ is tremendously exciting and detailed, with the stop-motion animation further refined to the point of almost hypnotic seamlessness.
The voice performances are uniformly excellent, especially from Fanning, Kingsley and Hempstead-Wright, but the real heroes of the film are the animators. Even with the best computer tools at their disposal, they use them wisely, opting for the traditional stop-motion techniques before any pixels become involved. Comparing it to ‘Coraline’, ‘The Boxtrolls’ certainly has a slicker look, and computer effects have undoubtedly allowed the filmmakers to open up the scope of the medium, but in a final beautiful coda to the film, the mountainous work that went into the film is put on display, a reminder that human hands rather than pixels crafted this film.
This has been an unusually exciting year for animation, with ‘The Lego Movie’ and ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’ proving that the medium still has so much more to explore and to say. ‘The Boxtrolls’, while not an instant classic like ‘Coraline’, is yet another example to prove the point. A combination of great skill, wild imagination, dollops of darkness and daring and a tremendous amount of heart make it a thoroughly memorable and unexpectedly moving experience. Kids will have an absolute blast with the gorgeous Boxtrolls and their hilarious antics, and parents will happily jump along for the ride. Let’s hope Laika still have many more stories to tell and boundaries to push.