“The Boxtrolls” is the latest stop-motion animation film distributed by Focus Features and brought to life by Laika, the makers of “Coraline” and “ParaNorman”. Both of those movies were nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and I’ll be very surprised if “The Boxtrolls” isn’t on the ballot this year. What, on the surface, appears to be a cute family adventure about a boy and his best-friends – mythical monsters who live inside boxes on and under the streets of a fictitious England village, is actually a serious relationship drama with some deep themes and political messages, sprinkled with a good deal of offbeat British humor. “The Boxtrolls” is not for young kids, but rather, for the kid in all the rest of us, who longs for excitement, love and a purpose in life.
Set in Cheesebridge, where its namesake food is the most prized possession, the story is centered on young boy called Eggs, who the townsfolk believe was taken from his family as a baby by the feared Boxtrolls. Eggs (voiced by “Game of Thrones”‘ Isaac Hempstead Wright) grows-up thinking he is a Boxtroll, acting, talking and living just like them, inside a cardboard box. And he learns from them how to build things and make incredible machines from discarded parts thrown away by humans. His best friends and father-figures are Fish and Shoe.
But as the years go by Eggs gets too big for his box and he soon realizes that he’s different from the rest of his “family”. And when he meets a girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning is excellent) he learns he is really a human boy.
These two become friends and work together to try to stop four exterminators (led by the voice of an unrecognizable Sir Ben Kingsley as Archibald Snatcher) from capturing The Boxtrolls, who wander into town at night in search of new junk they can use for their inventions. And they aren’t monsters at all – but kind, loving and caring creatures. Snatcher’s ultimate goal is to kill every last Boxtroll so he can earn an esteemed white hat and become a member of the town’s elite, who not only get to make all the rules, but also eat all the exquisite cheese in the land. Winnie’s father, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris, who played Professor Moriarty in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”) is their leader.
“The Boxtrolls” is packed with fun and funny characters, including Snatcher’s three assistants: the crazy one with the off-kilter one-liners is Mr. Gristle (voiced by Tracy Morgan). The other two, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout (Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost), are more sensitive, and as the story progresses, these two begin to question if they’re really the good guys or the bad guys.
But the script also has a lot to say – at least I think it does. Were the writers really making statements about class warfare, social status, immigration, economics, family relationships – all inside an often silly animated film? Or, were they simply going for laughs? Clearly there’s a lot going on below the surface of “The Boxtrolls” (pun intended). I thought more about this film, upon leaving the theater, than any I’ve seen in recent memory.
Yet, the narrative itself is very straightforward and provides very few surprises. This is the film’s major weakness. There’s really only one “wow” moment, and it comes in the closing credits (and is the best closing credits sequence of the year, by far).
However, everything else about “The Boxtrolls” exceeds expectations. The stop-motion animation is triumphant, especially in the difficult to create, over-the-top slapstick moments. It took the filmmakers 18 months to create one, two-minute elaborate and very sweet ballroom sequence. And directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring genuine emotion to several of the scenes involving Eggs and the Boxtrolls. The ensemble voice cast also includes Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, and Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum as Boxtrolls, characters adapted from the 2005 book “Here Be Monsters!”. The dialogue among the humans is very sharp. And the beautiful score by Oscar-winner Dario Marianelli is nomination-worthy as well.
Most impressive, within the basic story, are the challenging, multi-layered messages. Not too many films, particularly in this genre, delve into the mature topics we get here, such as a child’s feelings about family, security and the fear of daring to break out of one’s own box and become somebody. There’s symbolism everywhere.
“The Boxtrolls” is rated PG for some action/violence, rude humor and a little peril. With good intentions in all the right places, this is a daring and satisfying animated feature that’s just as unique and special as its many characters, who teach us that there’s nothing wrong with being a little square.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Boxtrolls” gets a B+.