Film Review: The Boxtrolls

Another amazingly meticulous and stylish stop-motion tale from the Laika studio, this time focusing on a boy adopted by a population of maligned underground trolls.

Maybe it’s something in the water: The negative trade-paper reviews following the Venice Film Festival premiere of The Boxtrolls, the third feature from Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio Laika, are baffling to this reviewer. “Unappealing” and “drab” are just two of the pejoratives that are being hurled at this tale of oppressed but resourceful trolls who wear cardboard boxes and live underground in the eccentric Victorian-era town called Cheesebridge. OK, sure, the Boxtrolls aren’t cute like Despicable Me’s Minions—in fact, they’re rather grotesque-looking—but “unappealing” is the last word I’d use to describe this often delightful and beautifully crafted fantasy-adventure.

Based on a portion of Alan Snow’s children’s book Here Be Monsters!, Laika’s latest does take its time creating a rooting interest in the strange characters onscreen—by design. Our first impression of the Boxtrolls is that of greedy thieves and scavengers who are the bane of the human population aboveground; what’s worse, they have a nasty reputation for abducting and eating infants. That lie, spurred by the tragic disappearance of “the Shropshire baby,” is propagated by the ambitious Archibald Snatcher, whose goal is to raise his social standing through the complete extermination of these bothersome pests.

Once we enter the Boxtrolls’ antic world, we discover they are indeed harboring a human child, who grows into the 11-year-old Eggs (named after the carton he wears), all the time believing he’s one of their tribe. Eggs’ life changes the night he encounters Winnie, the feisty 11-year-old neglected daughter of self-absorbed aristocrat Lord Portley-Rind. After a rocky beginning, the two youngsters bond, as Eggs copes with the revelation that he’s a human being like her. Together, they resolve to rescue the hapless Boxtrolls Snatcher has snatched and dispel the myth that these dumpster-divers are also bloodthirsty predators. Along the way, we also discover the frightening and touching story behind Eggs’ “abduction.”

Admittedly, The Boxtrolls does borrow from the animated successes that precede it: The industrious commune of eager trolls is reminiscent of those teeming Minions, and the human population’s obsession with cheese can be seen as an homage to stop-motion greats Wallace and Gromit. And the steampunk-style climax, in which Snatcher unleashes a destructive, clomping giant machine on the populace, is one more case of excessive movie mayhem. But from beginning to end, directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable and their crew conjure a meticulously detailed, whimsically atmospheric cobblestoned world above and inventively funky subculture below.

Perhaps it’s the off-putting design of the green, toothy, pointy-eared Boxtrolls and the exaggerated Hogarth-like features of many of the human characters that repulsed those trade critics. But a gifted voice cast brings lots of personality to the mix. An unrecognizable Ben Kingsley channels his Sexy Beast ferocity as the single-mindedly ruthless Snatcher, who craves the town’s prized cheese even though he’s terribly allergic to it. Isaac Hempstead Wright of “Game of Thrones” and Elle Fanning make a charming pair of young heroes as Eggs and Winnie. Jared Harris is amusingly pompous as Winnie’s obtuse father, and Tracy Morgan, Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost make a diverting trio as Snatcher’s zany henchmen. The latter two, in fact, provide the movie’s comic highlights with their meta-banter about good and evil and their existential roles in this fantasy world. Stick with the end credits for the ultimate meta-joke involving these characters, which will not only send you out with a smile but an even greater appreciation for the art of stop-motion animators like the folks behind The Boxtrolls.

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