The Boxtrolls is a marvelous stop-motion family film with all the twisted macabre charms of a Roald Dahl book or an Edward Gorey drawing. It conjures a wondrously imagined storybook Edwardian village of crooked cobblestone streets and leaning buildings clustered up one side of a skinny seaside hill and down the other. Deep below the town’s sewers live squat grey-green trolls clad in cardboard boxes. They’re harmless, kind-hearted beings who only come out at night, scavenging for bits and bobs they cobble together into steampunk creations that form their cavernous lair. But the humans fear them, leading to a storyline about the boxtrolls’ persecution. So, yes, this is a movie about learning to accept yourself and understand others. That’s like any number of family films. But this one has dastardly shifty villains, adults who cruelly marginalize children, and a society that willfully and mindlessly oppresses. You know, for kids!
Like the best kids’ films, it’s smart and involving on a level that can be appreciated by any audience. This one is tremendously imagined, creepy and cute in equal measure. The sophisticated, funny, and deeply felt script by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, from a book by Alan Snow, moves briskly, cleverly deploying its moralizing in a parade of grotesqueries. The villain is an ugly, greedy man with spindly legs and a pendulous belly. His name is Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), and he leads the town’s crusade to eradicate the boxtrolls. He spreads propaganda accusing the trolls of eating children and leads his team of exterminators (Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan) out every night to capture the creatures. It’s all in hopes of being promoted into the town’s elite White Hat club.
It is not all twisted. Our hero is a boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright), apparently orphaned before the film starts, and raised by the boxtrolls as one of their own. He alone understands their adorable guttural babble, but he’s picked up human English as well. He thinks he’s a troll, but soon learns he’s a bridge between the town’s worlds. The boxtrolls fear the humans, who are controlled by leaders obsessed with hats and cheeses. They’re more than happy to delegate troll suppression to a creepy striver like Snatcher, the better to give them more time to devote to cheese. The mayor (Jared Harris) barely acknowledges his daughter (Elle Fanning), allowing her to sneak off and explore the world of the trolls. Both locales, above and below, are filled up with charming details and throwaway gags. You get the sense man and boxtroll would get along fine if only they could get over fears and prejudices.
A charmingly cracked story, the film features bouncy slapstick, clattering gadgetry, and a compassionately lumpy design. Painstakingly detailed in the way only stop-motion animation can be, the characters move like gangly puppets and interact with the world in a tangible way. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi oversee enveloping 3D environments that enliven terrifically staged dollhouse sets. It feels both real and not in the same instant, in the way all stories do when you’re young. There’s childlike wonder in these frames. Movements carry a weight and presence, even as the events zip off confidently down whimsical alleys.
It's beautifully ugly, eccentric in every detail. This is a movie that features a man monstrously allergic to cheese who gobbles it down anyway, his face and limbs swelling with flabby pustules as it breaks out in bulging hives. (He’s cured by being covered in a writhing mass of leeches.) Henchmen have discussions about whether they’re “the good guys.” A little girl has a sense of morbid curiosity her father finds distasteful. The town is enamored of a secretive French warbler coming to town, one Madame Frou Frou. And then there are the trolls, who tinker, dance, and waddle around, then fold back into their boxes every night, stacking themselves gently into one big family cube. They mean well, and we want to see them coexist peacefully.
This is the third film from Laika, an Oregon-based stop-motion production company. The Boxtrolls fits in nicely with Coraline and ParaNorman in style and tone, forming a lovely set of richly imagined and fantastically clever movies to delight and thrill children of all ages. I think we can safely say they’ve become as dependable and singular an animation studio as Ghibli or Pixar. We know what to expect from them visually and emotionally – something skillfully dark and sweet. These are films with personality and feeling. When so much of Hollywood’s animated product is programmatic and conventional CGI homogeny, there’s definitely room for creative people willing to make earnest stories with sharp statements and distinctive imagery. How wonderful to have Laika. We can trust their heart and intelligence and retain the capacity to be surprised and charmed by their generously overflowing delights.