Silver Screen: The Boxtrolls ****
Earlier this year I happened to be staying in Portland with some friends, two of whom work for the Oregon-based animation studio Laika, on the same weekend as the wrap party for their latest movie, The Boxtrolls. Laika’s previous releases were the charming ParaNorman and the wonderfully macabre Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline, so I expected enthusiasm for the third film. They weren’t having it.
“I don’t think this one is going to be very good,” one of the animators confided after several post-party drinks. He was worn down from seventy-hour workweeks— for what? “What the hell is a Boxtroll?”
The other Laika employee was more Zen about the experience. He’s an artist who spent hours upon hours laser-etching intricate designs into metal buckles for the outfit of just one of the characters in the bustling stop-motion-animated cast. You spend so much time focusing on your minute contribution, he said, that you can’t help but occasionally lose sight of the bigger picture.
I’m thrilled to report that my pals and their colleagues at the plucky independent animation studio weren’t breaking their necks in vain. The Boxtrolls is a delight, and a handsome one at that. Their system of using 3D-printed models and old-school stop-motion animation makes for a wonderful fusion of shiny new technology and the warmth and heft of the handmade.
The plot, based on elements of Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters, is a storybook tale heavy on the allegory but never just heavy. The sleepy town of Cheesebridge is inhabited by a race of tiny, industrious creatures called boxtrolls. They’re trolls who live in boxes— it’s not that complicated. The little fellows are like anti-gremlins in that they love to build, so much so that they have constructed an entire steampunk metropolis beneath the city’s cobblestone streets. The boxtrolls adopt an orphan boy who they call Eggs (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead Wright); like every member of their society, he’s named for the logo on the front of his cardboard box.
Aboveground, nefarious social climber Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) has concocted a scheme to rise to the top of the town’s hierarchy, an elite club of town fathers called the White Hats who pretend to govern but spend all of their time in “the tasting room” sampling fancy cheeses. Snatcher claims that Eggs’s disappearance was a kidnapping by the boxtrolls, and makes a deal with head White Hat Lord Portley-Rind (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) that he can join the club if he exterminates every single boxtroll. Meanwhile, Lord Portley-Rind’s precocious, morbid daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) is obsessed with the boxtrolls and alerts her father that she saw a human boy living among them.
Like the strongest entries in the Pixar cannon, The Boxtrolls is not only entertaining to both children and adults, it entertains them in the same way. That’s the magic of the best of this modern crop of movies nominally pitched to the PG-demographic. The lazier movies distract the adults with entendre and crusty pop-culture allusions while they peddle fart jokes and slapstick to a fanbase too young to know better. The Boxtrolls deftly merges dazzling style and surprising substance with its dark running gag about the evils of complicity. Snatcher’s trio of henchmen (voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan) ponder the existential nature of their position as lackies helping to exterminate a species and come up with a dark cartoon philosophy eerily similar to “I was just following orders.”
But that makes The Boxtrolls sound dour rather than exuberant, which it manages to be even when exploring weightier issues. The boxtrolls themselves are adorably malformed with clearly delineated personalities, all conveyed through gesture and expression. The filmmakers— a band of relative newcomers to their positions, including codirectors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava— wisely give the boxtrolls a silly-sounding language decipherable only to Eggs, so their emotions must be conveyed through pure animation. The animators are more than up to the task.
The Boxtrolls packs several sharp running gags, deftly handled but surprisingly complex subtext, a killer musical number, and thrilling sweeps and swoops of the camera that might actually justify the price bump of a 3D ticket. It’s easily one of 2014’s best kids movies and, come year’s end, might just be one of the best, period.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.