Stop-motion animation is and always will be an acquired taste and a rarity at the box office. Over the past 20 years only a handful even come to mind: “Wallace and Gromit,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Corpse Bride,” “Frankenweenie,” and the heart-wrenchingly beautiful story behind the criminally under seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman-led “Mary and Max” basically make up the list. This is due in large part to the painstaking care and time not only of the construction but also the manipulation of the figurines that come so shockingly to life on the screen; it takes so much effort just to make a short clip much less an entire feature length film. And thus emerges one of the most exciting production companies to come out of Hollywood in terms of sheer imagination in that of Laika. In the past five years alone they boast such great films as the Neil Gaiman-based and surprisingly terrifying “Coraline” and, most recently, “ParaNorman.” The latest installment though, rather than adding supernatural elements to our world, albeit a bizarrely skewed version, “The Boxtrolls” finally allows Laika animators to stretch their imaginations by creating a totally new universe that is cheese-centric and awe-inspiring in its originality.
The story follows the lovable trolls who, as the title may suggest, inhabit boxes although, rather than homes, as clothes. Their names, such as Fish, Eggs, Wheels, Shoe, and Jelly, all derive from the product each troll’s box was meant to store. They are ingenious, imaginative, and technically brilliant, perhaps mirroring a bit of the animators that created them. Sadly, due to the nasty Archibald Snatcher’s nefarious ulterior motives in hopes of using them to climb the social ranks, they are constantly misunderstood, victimized, and even enslaved. This all is business as usual until our protagonist, the boy thought to have been troll-fodder years before, emerges as quite alive and healthy, living himself as a boxtroll named Eggs, With the help of a spunky and curious girl named Winnie, he not only realizes who he truly is but he helps defeat the evil Snatcher and save his troll family.
The movie, although animated and hyped as being for the whole family, is quite dark both visually and narratively. The animation style makes Snatcher scary for any age and at one point Eggs is told his real father is dead (although thankfully he is leaves him an orphan in a cruel town where white hats and an access to the cheese-tasting room signify an aristocracy wasted on those who actually have it, the boxtrolls take the little boy in as one of their own. To Eggs, even at the end, regardless of blood, they are family.
The story and the visuals work hand-in-hand to make this a great treat for the eyes but it would be reprehensible to not recognize the stellar voice work that made this a treat for the ears as well. Our favorite cripple from “Game of Thrones” in Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Eggs is great as our valiant boyish hero and Elle Fanning adds some spunk to a role that demands it. Jared Harris as Winnie’s father and the head cheese-crazed white hat of the town is perfect as an arrogant prat who has yet to truly earn the grandiose lifestyle in which he inhabits. Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade are a treat as the morally-conflicted and eventually redemptive henchman of snatcher and Simon Pegg is delightful as Jelly, Eggs’ crazed but jolly father. Of course though, one must tip one’s white hat to Sir Ben Kingsley as the truly nasty Archibald Snatcher who in many scenes is even in drag in his conspiratorial effort to gain the cheese he ironically is allergic to, eventually resulting in him literally exploding come the film’s conclusion.
“The Boxtrolls” is not really ever a kids movie as, at times, even the lovable trolls themselves can be a bit scary to look at but, for those of us who appreciate the rarity of the art of stop-motion animation, this is amongst the best. The story is fun, aided by great writing and role-perfect voice work, and the art is a sheer treat. For a world obsessed with cheese, this film avoids being anything but cheesy, containing more heart than most. Do not let the idea of this being a cartoon scare you off because the content, although at times quite silly, is anything but cartoonish.