I admit with some embarrassment that a friend of mine — with an even lower mind than I have — had to point out that the title of The Boxtrolls was potentially a rude double entendre. I also assumed this was unintentional on the part of the filmmakers — until I was confronted with a villain named Snatcher. So much for innocent kiddie fare, but then it’s debatable that the Laika studio’s earlier fare — Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) — could reasonably be called “kiddie fare.” Both have more than their share of truly dark material. The latter, in fact, not only has a great deal of macabre humor, but follows the basic template of Christophe Gans’ horror film, Silent Hill (2006), in several instances and is filled with in-references to other horror movies. The Boxtrolls may, in fact, be the least potentially disturbing — innuendo to one side — of the three, since its darkness is mostly in the form of the casually grotesque. At least, that’s true on the surface. The film trades in themes of demonizing those who are different in order to destroy them for personal gain, making it deeper than might be assumed and part and parcel of the other Laika films. It is, however, the least of the three, which doesn’t keep it from being the best animated film I’ve seen this year.
What makes The Boxtrolls a lesser work, I think, lies in the fact that while it duplicates the tone of the other movies and trades in similar themes, it lacks the more personal driving visions of Coraline and ParaNorman. It is the first of the Laika productions to feel more like it’s adhering to a studio-mandated style than a single vision — a more corporate vision. I’m not sure that’s wholly a bad thing, since Laika is still putting out work for those of us who are not quite as dazzled as we’re supposed to be by seeing the words Pixar and Disney. That in itself strikes me as worthwhile — at least as long as the Laika approach doesn’t slide into formula, and this could be a step toward that.
The story centers on the nefarious Archibald Snatcher (a character who looks like Timothy Spall, but is voiced by Ben Kingsley). He wants nothing more in life than to become a member of the ruling class, which will allow him to wear a prestigious white hat and eat cheese with the town’s version of the one percent. (That he is violently — and gruesomely — allergic to cheese does not deter him.) To this end, he has demonized the Boxtrolls of the title via a fiction of his own devising — that these harmless creatures kidnapped and ate the Trubshaw baby — and that these “monsters” are coming for the rest of the town’s children. (Insert the minority of your choice for the Boxtroll scapegoats.) In reality, the Boxtrolls are a goofy, timid collection of fanciful creatures, whose tendency to eat bugs may be disconcerting but is hardly threatening. They live under the streets, steal discarded items at night and wear boxes that they retract into at the slightest sign of danger. One of their number, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), doesn’t fit the profile and is actually a human boy (no prizes for guessing who he is).
Snatcher’s plan is to attain status by rounding up and exterminating these harmless horrors, but he hasn’t reckoned on Eggs teaming up with Winnie (Elle Fanning), daughter of the local bigwig, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). For that matter, he hasn’t factored in his own ineptitude, or the fact that two of his minions (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) are not entirely sold on this villain business. What happens is not particularly fresh in itself, but the approach is sufficiently quirky in its specifics and steampunkish weirdness to make it have its own identity. There is more here that works than doesn’t, including Snatcher’s drag-act stage show to keep the tale of the Trubshaw baby firmly in the town’s mind and a wonderfully staged fancy-dress ball. Plus, the stop-motion animation is first-rate, and it looks like the major CGI embellishment involves the characters’ eyes that look oddly dead in scene stills, but not in the movie itself. All in all, it’s fun, funny and with more than meets the eye thematically. Rated PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor.