In the town of Cheesebridge, rich and powerful “white hats” lounge and eat expensive cheeses from their rich mansions above the general “red hat” population. The locals live in fear of the baby-snatching boxtrolls, who maraud the city streets at night. Redhat Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) announces a plan to capture and kill all of the boxtrolls – but only in return for a coveted white hat. His intentions, however, are not what they seem and the boxtrolls are not what they appear to be.
Remember the early 2000s, when Pixar Animation Studios were releasing one feature after another with a near-unprecedented level of quality? Original ideas were pouring out of the company from Toy Story to A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc to Finding Nemo, and they pretty much represented the highest standard of American animation. Then came an uneven decline in quality and a plethora of unnecessary sequels. The company may still produce the odd knockout – personally I thought Toy Story 4 was an absolute gem – but their reputation for quality has taken something of a beating in recent years.
What a relief, then, to have Portland-based animation company Laika Studios. Since 2009 the studio has produced five stop-motion animated features, starting with Henry Selick’s Coraline and running through to last year’s Missing Link. Every single one of their films has been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award. At the time of writing, Laika pretty much boasts the highest and most sustained quality of animation of the entire American film industry.
A case in point is their 2014 feature The Boxtrolls, based on Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters and directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi. The film is an inventive delight. Produced in beautifully augmented stop-motion, it brings a physicality and a visual texture that is stunning to watch. It has a delicate attention to detail and a wonderfully grotesque aesthetic. Its titular boxtrolls are amusing to behold, and their movements and expressions inspire a constant stream of laughter and warmth.
Central to the story is Eggs (Isaac Hampstead-Wright of Unbreakable and Gladiator fame), a boy believed by the town to be snatched away and eated by the boxtrolls, but who instead has been adopted by them and has grown up thinking himself to be one of them. When Eggs has a night-time encounter with a girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning of Maleficient and The Great), it opens him up to discovering his past and opens the boxtrolls up to new dangers.
In animation, plot really is the foundation on which films succeed or fail. The Boxtrolls is gifted with a tremendous one. It provides a strong dramatic basis on which the film’s various gags and funny characters may excel. This may essentially be a comedy, but there is a strong dramatic thrust that keeps things amusing, exciting, and occasionally quite monstrous.
The film’s various characters are tremendous, and are well-matched with an array of mostly British voice talent. Particularly strong is Ben Kingsley as the villainous Snatcher, whose simultaneous penchant for and allergy to cheese provides the most grotesque scenes of the whole piece. His three henchmen work exceptionally well too: voiced by Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and Tracy Morgan. Collectively they provide many of the best highlights.
The Boxtrolls is smart, absurd, wonderfully ugly, and brilliantly put together. From its atmospheric design to its wonderfully self-aware mid-credits sequence, it is a superb family film. It is not just for its time but for generations of children to come too.