Laika Entertainment has earned a reputation for crafting captivating handcrafted stop-motion animation with Coraline and ParaNorman. The intense detailing that goes into their films makes them an instant must-see for animation lovers. But it's their distinctive look and challenging storytelling that capture the imagination of children of all ages. By my count, The Boxtrolls is their most daring and delightful film yet.
Based on the Alan Snow book Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls is set in a dystopian town that is tense with fear over the titular creatures. In the film's first scene, we see a troll wearing a box run off with a baby as a human bellows in protest off screen. This is Archibald Snatcher, a lower-class cad who aims to climb the social ranks of a cheese-loving society by exterminating the Boxtrolls that local legend insists steal babies and gobble them up. But we're quickly given access to the real subterranean life of Boxtrolls, who only eat bugs, and come to the surface for spare parts to fuel their culture's deep-seated need to invent.
Among them lives Eggs, the boy who grows up believing he's one of them. But as more and more of his Boxtroll family is abducted by Snatcher, Eggs is forced to venture out on his own. (His peers are too timid by nature.) Meeting Winnie, an outspoken young girl with a deliciously morbid interest in the Boxtrolls, he discovers a partner in his quest to find--and if possible free--his snatched away adoptive father, Fish.
Its story is surprisingly sophisticated for a movie that is, at its core, for kids. There are elements of Terry Gilliam-style dystopia. For instance, The White Hats run this picturesque town. But they are foolish men who regularly cast aside measures that would help their fellow townsfolk in favor of eating exotic cheeses. They are meant to be men of generosity and valor, but mostly they are just men of means. Their leader Lord Portley-Rind's priorities are so twisted that he values the safety of his white hat more than that of his rambunctious daughter Winnie. This is a world where parents can fail you, forcing the kids to stand up on their own against Snatcher, who will do anything to achieve a white hat, and the status it provides.
Just as ParaNorman offered a compelling look at how bullying damages both the bullied and the bullies alike, The Boxtrolls shows how class ambition can make people lose sight of what really matters, namely family. But this isn’t the only lesson kids will be exposed to with The Boxtrolls. There are also themes about being your own hero--as I suggested above--and how it can be complicated to discern right from wrong. Two "evil minions" struggle with this throughout the film, hoping they are on the right side of this fight, but fearing they are not.
Intellectual debates and life lessons aside, The Boxtrolls is an inventive, striking and thoroughly fun adventure. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have built a world of dirt and wonder that is so rich in detail that it is a simple pleasure to just take it all in. The character designs -- full of streaks of reds and blues -- look like paintings popped into life. There's a warm and at times twisted sense of humor that includes Winnie's rants of ghoulish imagination as well as playful cheese puns. Yet there's also strong use of physical comedy, like a scene where a silhouette seems to reveal a towering boxtroll, until his shadow splits onto a small squad of the scavengers leaping froth from one large frame.
Helping give The Boxtrolls its distinctively weird and wonderful vibrancy is a voice cast that might be hard to recognize, but is perfection as a whole. Ben Kingsley sneers and spits as the vicious Archibald Snatcher in his various incarnations. Jared Harris lends posh attitude to the distracted dad Lord Portley-Rind. Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade have a Laurel and Hardy quality as Snatcher's philosophizing cronies Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, while Tracy Morgan is a suitably slobbery psycho as the wildcard of this bunch, Mr. Gristle. Celebrated voice actor Dee Bradley Baker lends his voice(s) to string of lovable Boxtrolls, who speak mostly gibberish yet win our hearts completely. But the heavy lifting of this tale is put on Isaac Hempstead Wright and Elle Fanning as Eggs and Winnie.
Wright has recorded his part at that tender age just before puberty plays tricks on boy's voices, and this timing gives Eggs an instant vulnerability. Defensive, desperate and demanding, Wright gives a full body to this adopted kid on a life-changing adventure. For her part, Fanning creates a heroine who will likely be loved for generations. Winnie, plump with baby fat and topped with curly red hair, is a defiant and outspoken girl who loves tales of horror. She's unique among a long history of lean and sweet Girl Fridays, but proves the perfect partner for Eggs, as well as one of the film's most enthralling characters.
All in all, The Boxtrolls is spectacular. In retrospect, its main plot is a bit straightforward. But that's less of an issue for a children's movie. Moreover, it's hard to care when watching it unfurl is so much damn fun! Lush with texture, details, and jokes, The Boxtroll is a feast for the eyes as well as a jaunty ride. Between its lively and colorful world, its rousing story, adorable heroes, willful silliness and daring The Boxtrolls isn't just a superb movie for the whole family, it's the best animated film of the year.