Everybody loves and respects the stop-motion animated films by Laika, the talented Portland, OR animators behind Coraline and ParaNorman. Those two films achieved great critical acclaim; widely praised for both their beauty and darker, supernatural themes. Neither was a huge box office hit, though, which must be frustrating given the thousands of man hours the studio puts in and never let us forget. Their latest film The Boxtrolls is perhaps their first stab at doing something that will achieve wider acceptance, but those who appreciated their more mature work may find it lacking.
The Boxtrolls is, like everything Laika does, exceptionally gorgeous and detailed. The amount they are able to put in to every scene is mind-blowing when one considers the time it takes to move each figure a single frame. And this world is the weirdest they’ve conjured up yet. The fictional sorta-Victorian town of Cheesebridge is a peculiar place where cheese in all its many forms is revered, especially by those of higher social standing, who all wear white hats as indicators of their stature. Underneath the city live the Boxtrolls, a family of ogre-ish creatures who emerge in the night looking for tossed aside trinkets and knick-knacks. They’ve been portrayed as monsters that kidnap children and eat them, a story concocted after a young boy’s disappearance. He’s actually quite alive, named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and living with the boxtrolls who raised him. Eggs has no idea that he’s actually human, which galls Winnie (Elle Fanning), the daughter of Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). Threatened by the Boxtrolls’ existence, Portley-Rind has hires devious exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) to finish them off. Snatcher’s all too happy to do it in exchange for receiving a white hat so he can eat cheese with the upper crust of society, this despite a chronic (and utterly disgusting) inability to tolerate the stuff. When Snatcher proves too good at his job, capturing nearly all of the Boxtrolls, it’s up to Eggs to brave the city and find them.
Laika has never shied away from tackling complex subjects, and The Boxtrolls is their most overt social commentary yet, which is a very good thing. While it’s toned down for younger audiences, the film celebrates family diversity in the familial bond between Eggs and the boxtrolls who care for him most, Shoe and Fish. The closeness between them is never in question, and those paying attention will note that both of Eggs’ boxtroll “parents” are males. It’s one of those small details that kids will grow into and appreciate. Laika has always been one to embrace its “outsider” status in Hollywood and their films have often embraced a certain counter-culture spirit. The Boxtrolls is no different in its celebration of diversity and skewering of hierarchal societies. These qualities are enjoyable but muddled by an overstuffed screenplay that tacks on one conflict after another. There’s Eggs’ reluctance to leave his boxtroll upbringing and embrace his human side; Snatcher’s scheming to climb the social ladder; Winny’s desire to gain her daddy’s favor; and the emergence of a daffy inventor (Simon Pegg) with very close ties to Eggs. It’s simply too much going on, and yet there are still too many times when the film drags to a screeching halt, and that may have something to do with it not being all that funny. This may be a matter of personal taste but the Python-esque, dry British wit isn’t everyone’s slice of cheddar. Throw in giant mechanical robots, gross-out gags, oversized wheels of cheese, Snatcher as a drag queen, and the humor is too childish and busy to come together as satisfying as it should.
Nothing can take away from how beautiful the world co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have helped create. It truly looks like no other Laika film which is really saying something. Combining steampunk with the offbeat style of Tim Burton, it’s an imaginative visual stunner that you will never get tired of looking at. What Laika is able to accomplish on a technical level is to be admired as much as their social concerns, but The Boxtrolls just doesn’t resonate in quite the way we’re used to from them.