So, I’m very late on this Laika train that has apparently been happening. Very late. I know the company began in 2009 and was just a newcomer, but despite only three features being under their belt, they have some pretty huge acclaim behind them. Since Nick Park had tragedy force him to move apart from the beloved Wallace and Gromit works, Laika’s success Coraline and ParaNorman have heralded them as champions of the animated art form of stop-motion, allowing the company to rival against the powerhouses of Dreamworks Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Pixar. Which is a lot to do when you’ve only had three movies come out and Coraline didn’t outright make as huge a splash in the animation pool as Shrek or Toy Story before it, but it’s still enough to stand on its own two feet against such hefty competition. The Boxtrolls, the second of these films to be based on a children’s book – this time loosely on Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, was the most recent release of theirs and pretty much the weakest, but its absolute enjoyability and astonishing detail work makes it a strong weak link for the line-up.
The script by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava starts upon a hefty knock on a door during a dark and stormy night in Cheesebridge, where a man announces the tragedy of a baby’s kidnapping and end in the digestive tract of the much feared BoxTrolls. These BoxTrolls are constantly a source of horror from the Cheesebridgians for their scurrying about at night, snatching whatever they see and taking them where they will never be seen again, but the demise of the child is the very last straw for the Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), who is pushed to agree to the terms of the local BoxTroll exterminator Archibald Snatcher (A seriously unrecognizable voice that turns out to be Ben Kingsley) – If Snatcher can find and kill every single one of the BoxTrolls, Snatcher receives a prestigious White Hat, which put him at the tippity-tippity-top of the class system Cheesebridge has set up for their citizens.
This is only the first scene I have just described, but that just about sets up the stakes and the motivations of Snatcher and just on paper it would seem we are meant to be viewing him as the hero, but there’s something off from the creepy phrasings and gleeful smirk and in general the ghoulish nature of both Snatcher’s behavior and his appearance (among the many things that makes The Boxtrolls such a fantastic movie is how exaggerated as a picture it is) that makes us absolutely certain beyond any reasonable doubt that something more is up than he’s letting on.
It doesn’t take long for us to confirm that, well, whether or not Snatcher is aware, the boy has lived long and healthy under the care of the BoxTrolls, themselves accepting the child as one of their own while the child accepts himself as solely one of the BoxTrolls, unaware of his nature as a human. That is until Eggs as the child is called (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) delves a bit more into the mystery of what on earth is making his fellow BoxTrolls disappear more and more and ends up eventually discovered by the first daughter of Cheesebridge herself, Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning) and has to discover a lot more about himself and the BoxTrolls than he went for.
Now, what makes The Boxtrolls so fabulous to behold if how ugly it is. No, but not in that, this is poorly made, but the cheese is gnarled and looks how it probably smells, the edges of the scenarios are sharper than seems safe, the characters all have a sickly look along them, and so on and so forth, like one of those famous 90s-00s storybooks that have such a DIY yourself look to them that couldn’t possibly be conceived by any child and yet here it is, presented in its abstract form for the children and frankly everybody else to eat up.
This style just invites such a lovely psychological decay to each aspect of Cheesebridge, from their bourgeois folks dismissing even the most dire of circumstances for their casual Cheese enthusiasm to the aware manner of dialogue between two of Snatcher’s more articulate henchmen Messr.s Trout and Pickles (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, respectively) and the deranged violence of the less articulate Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan in one of the few roles I’ve witnessed from him that doesn’t make me want to beat him with a belt). It’s all so well-crafted, so precisely made, that it gives the colorful designs of Paul Lasaine such a flush life inside their near-morbid design. Despite The Boxtrolls not really rising above its Laika predecessors, it’s still a damn sight of an improvement in the animation styles of the movies – making them that much closer to being just a glide rather than a chop between movements and caricatures. The closest I can recall to these stylizations are The Nightmare Before Christmas, but those styles were kind of forced by the story itself. The Boxtrolls never had to be such a treat and not only presents itself as such, but one-ups The Nightmare Before Christmas with its 3D work. This animation is as good as anything from Pixar at this point, I can tell you that.
The story is the only point where the film loses me. Certainly the story is what leads us to explore more of both the Boxtrolls worlds and the Cheesebridge world, and the script’s choice of lines and even the squeaks the Boxtrolls themselves provide is worth enough of a gander, but the story is just kind of… bland? I’m sure its simplicity will have the kids loving it at least, but to me, all the plot points, all the trends, they were all so generic and predictable… it was easy to map out where the movie was going with each point and I think I’ve been spoiled enough by Laika with their other storylines to have unfortunately pushed myself to idealize something unexpected by like ParaNorman or Coraline. But that’s only the slightest price to pay and still the cast does so remarkably well to sell the plot while the designs just keep pushing and plodding along that The Boxtrolls ended up quite the ingenious invention of a film in itself, even if it wasn’t so ingenious as a tale.