REVIEW: The Boxtrolls [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: September 26th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi
Writer(s): Irena Brignull & Adam Pava / Alan Snow (novel Here Be Monsters!)

“We’re exterminating justice!”

If it didn’t take Laika so long to produce a feature film due to the meticulous process inherent with their stop-motion aesthetic, I have to believe they’d be as prolifically successful as Pixar. I might say I even like their sensibilities more because while they too deal with morality lessons every child should have an outlet to deal with, they do it without fear of the darker bits of humanity coming through. It’s not that fare like Coraline and ParaNorman are inappropriate for young children—on the contrary, I believe they’re exactly what our youth needs. It’s the parents who may feel squeamish letting their children watch something mildly spooky because they might have to deal with a resulting nightmare. In my opinion those nightmares are exactly what we need: a little fright to ensure the point’s understood.

In that respect, The Boxtrolls is their greatest success at toeing the tonal line of containing slapstick, cutesy character design, and motif repetition for the kiddies alongside intelligent humor for those adults open-minded enough to give it a shot whether or not they have tiny dependents who may want to dress up in boxes and around the house afterwards. Based on Alan Snow‘s British children’s series entitled Here Be Monsters!, it’s no surprise the humor bears a close resemblance to England’s sacred sons Monty Python. It’s the sort of comedy many won’t have the patience for, but that’s their loss and our gain. And when you think about how many hours it takes Laika to animate one minute of footage, you must appreciate their willingness to create a niche product that potentially might not find its audience.

Adapted by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava for directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, the story is much more on the nose than the studio’s previous efforts and it knows it. This filmmaking quartet embraces the sentimentality revolving around a lost boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright‘s Eggs) stolen by the titular creatures for which the residents of Cheese Bridge fear. And with two characters I’m assuming were also in Snow’s source material constantly talking about the proceedings they’re engaged in as though cognizant it’s all a film, a playful atmosphere is introduced that diffuses the terror such a tale of monsters could possess. They—the eloquent Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) and affable Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade)—ask the audience whether they’re heroes or villains and allow our acceptance that the true evil lies within conniving Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley).

Even he’s redeemable to a point, though, thanks to a backstory wherein he simply wants to fit in with the upper crust “white hats” led by posh Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). In this respect it’s possible to learn lessons from each and every character—good or bad—by watching selfish desire and covetous greed warp the well meaning into monsters and compassion and love turn monsters into helpful heroes without a cruel bone in their bodies. So even though it’s Eggs’ story to discover a place between two worlds, it’s also about their inevitable collision. Humans like Lord Portley-Rind more intent on sampling the latest cheese than watching daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) need to readjust their priorities and Boxtrolls who’ve been hiding their entire lives must find the confidence to stand tall and actively pursue their own survival.

The latter is a must since Snatcher’s foolproof plan to earn a seat at the cheese-sampling table—I never said the plot wasn’t goofily eccentric through and through—deals with his destroying every last troll. Citizens of Cheese Bridge go along with it because he has manufactured a lie that the little gibberish-spouting guys roaming the night streets for scrap machine parts are out for human flesh. Rile up a hoard of parents and watch as they adhere to the most stringent of curfews by locking their doors and praying for safety only this “red hat” slime ball can provide. He’s tricked them into seeing him as a savior; played doting cronies Trout, Pickles, and crazed critter Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan) to do his bidding almost implicitly; and has found himself winning the battle he himself created.

Only when Eggs’ surrogate troll father Fish (each is named after the box they utilize as clothing/turtle shell) is snatched does Snatcher’s plan hit its first snag. The truth of the situation they all find themselves in is revealed, Eggs and Winnie unite to win back the father figures they’ve lost either from kidnapping or complacency and indifference respectively, and everyone discovers what it takes to be true to who they are and not what they are. It’s an empowering message for viewers of all ages to absorb with meaningful evolutions occurring across the board until a fantastically dire climax with real stakes if not an actual death toll (it’s a children’s film after all). Everyone has their limitations and psychological hang-ups, but with the help of friends they can rise above and save the day.

And thanks to a brilliant art department it comes together in stunning detail. There’s a scene at the start with Eggs, Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), and Shoe (Steve Blum) getting chased by Snatcher and his men across the city’s rooftops. It’s a kinetic race with fluid aerial shots, first-person vantage points, and impossible speeds that will hurt your brain to fathom how it could all be done by hand. The craftsmanship is insane and largely why Laika exists on a level alongside few others. It may not be their best—ParaNorman is hard to beat—but it is their most fun thanks to retaining its British comedic origins. Whether the charmingly grotesque creatures’ childlike actions delighting youngsters or Trout and Pickles’ philosophical identity crises tickling adults, The Boxtrolls proves a resounding success that treats its audience with respect.

[1] The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures in LAIKA and Focus Features’ family event movie THE BOXTROLLS, opening nationwide September 26th. Credit: LAIKA, Inc. / Focus Features
[2] (L to R) Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright), Shoe and Fish try to escape from the Red Hats in LAIKA and Focus Features’ family event movie THE BOXTROLLS, opening nationwide September 26th. Credit: LAIKA, Inc. / Focus Features
[3] (L to R) Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning) and Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) in LAIKA and Focus Features’ family event movie THE BOXTROLLS, opening nationwide September 26th. Credit: LAIKA, Inc. / Focus Features

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