VOD film review: The Boxtrolls
Mark Harrison | On 28, Jan 2015
Directors: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade
Many cried that everything is not awesome when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences somehow neglected to give The LEGO Movie a nomination for Best Animated Picture.
But it’s also hard to say that any of the other nominated films didn’t deserve their place in the top five. Especially deserving of recognition is The Boxtrolls, the latest film from Laika, the stop-motion animation company behind Coraline and ParaNorman.
Loosely based on a story from Alan Snow’s novel, Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls takes place in the weird local bureaucracy of Cheesebridge, whose council consists of four white-hatted cheese-munching toffs led by Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris.)
Red-hatted pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) will do just about anything to get a seat on the council and chow down on cheese with them, and so he turns his scorn on the titular Boxtrolls, a race of Womble-like foragers who live beneath the town. Snatcher blames them for the murder of a missing boy and vows to exterminate every last one to curry political favour.
Little do the residents of Cheesebridge realise that the missing boy, Eggs (Hempstead-Wright), was actually raised by the Boxtrolls as their own. Now convinced that he is a Boxtroll too, he takes to the streets with Portley-Rind’s neglected daughter, Winnie (Fanning), to defend his family.
Coraline and ParaNorman both dealt in horror genre tropes, sparing no scares in the process of teaching kids how to be scared – and how, in turn, to keep an open mind in the face of fear and intolerance. The Boxtrolls is a much funnier affair, but its themes definitely make it one of a set with its predecessors.
Moreover, their affinity for the grotesque is present and correct, partly due to the distinctive character design but mostly down to their unorthodox concentration on Snatcher. Eggs and Winnie may be the nominal lead characters, but only as their relative normality makes them more immediately sympathetic. Snatcher is absolutely the antagonist, but the film almost plays as a villainous origin story for him. He’s quite a ridiculous figure, desperate for a taste of power in a town obsessed with cheese, even though he himself has a catastrophic lactose intolerance, which manifests itself in visually hilarious ways.
Even if grown-up UK viewers don’t find familiarity in the figure of a grotesque politician, creating demonic fallacies about the least powerful in society in some desperate bid to look like a man of the people, Snatcher is no less potent as a caricature. He may be more Farage than forager, but he’s still threatening just for the sheer malice he represents, both in his ruthless social climbing and in Ben Kingsley’s nigh-unrecognisable vocals.
Kingsley isn’t the only one who really belts out his performance. Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade are consistently good value as Snatcher’s clueless, meta-textual henchmen, reprising the “Are we the baddies?” schtick from That Mitchell & Webb Look (“At this point, I’m about 60% sure we’re the good guys,” Ayoade’s Mr. Pickles ponders.)
The Boxtrolls themselves (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley and Fred Tatasciore) have a squabbling baby-talk language that reminds you of Despicable Me’s Minions en masse, but the film goes to great pains to make the little gribblies more vulnerable than the indestructible yellow gonks. Even though they’re designed to look butt-ugly, all buck-toothed and ashen-skinned, their big bright eyes and gentle demeanour go a long way towards making them quite cute, and quite obviously the opposite of Snatcher’s fear-mongering rhetoric.
In keeping with Laika’s style of storytelling, the growing class conflict builds to a climax that promotes acceptance, and speaks well to the generation of kids that will grow up liking this sort of thing.
Trumping most of the big CG-animation behemoths in town, Laika are steadily building themselves a collection of early Pixar-calibre classics. The Boxtrolls is weird, wonderful and more than worthy of that Oscar, if only for an unmissable mid-credits sequence that does more to suggest a larger cinematic universe in stop-motion than any number of Nick Fury cameos ever could.