With just two films under their belt, Laika studios have been an utter treat, bringing us beautiful and creative stop-motion animation. Coraline was a strong debut, adapting the bestselling novel in a fun way and winning over worried book fans like myself. Then ParaNorman absolutely wowed me with its blend of horror references and a very impactful core message about difference and bullying. So, needless to say, I was more than a little looking forward to their latest outing: The Boxtrolls.
In an effort to join the city’s cheese-eating elite, monster catcher Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) has vowed to destroy all members of a race of creatures called Boxtrolls; small creatures that steal things in the night. Many years later a young boy raised amongst Boxtrolls, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), wants to help his friends stand up to the exterminators, and enlists the aid of his new friend Winnie (Elle Fanning) to do so.
I’ll get the most obvious thing out of the way right now: the animation here is flawless. The environments are intricately built, from the Victorian-era city above to the world of the Boxtrolls below. The creatures themselves are a kind of nasty-cute; ugly in an affable way. Not really dangerous and more interested in making their junk-based technology. A lot of their character is gotten across through little to no dialogue, a very silent movie touch. Each troll is also quite distinctive, taking their names from the symbols on their boxes like slightly demented steampunk Care Bears. The human characters are also quite well drawn; in particular I enjoyed Winnie, the girly girl who gleefully obsesses over the morbid horror stories of the Boxtrolls that the monster exterminators have been feeding citizens. Archibald Snatcher is also a great villain, Ben Kingsley puts in a great and unrecognisable vocal performance, and it’s in his face that you see some of the best technical human character work in the film. A particular detail where the character has violent allergic reactions to cheese and puffs out into these grotesque forms is disgusting in a way that will equally horrify and delight children. This is, in essence, Laika’s strong point; to tell stories with imagination, wit, comedy both physical and scripted (in one case complete with a badum-tish), and to do so without making it overly squeaky clean for the sake of making it family-friendly. They have the mud, the dirt, and the darkness needed to make children’s films that have real staying power.
What I am saddened to say despite this is that whilst The Boxtrolls has all the skill and style of Laika’s previous work, something about the story falls a little flat. It’s very straightforward and simple, a string of danger and escapes that never really feels full even with a nice message about making your own identity. That’s in no way saying that the film isn’t worth watching. It’s certainly more original and creative than the usual children’s film fare. Not so much a dud, just not as good as the ones before.
Also, stay for the end credits, not only is there some very nice hand drawn animation, but there’s also a scene of two characters waxing philosophical about existence alongside a display of the animators and their hardy work.