Oregon-based Laika Animated Studios is best known for the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Each one is an impressive feature that blends an engaging story with stop-motion artistry. Quite simply, they’re extraordinary works of entertainment. In fact, both were such successes they each made my Top 10 in the respective years they came out. Given that, The Boxtrolls was among my most eagerly anticipated releases of the year. It goes without saying that my expectations were very high. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to report that Laika’s latest offering is a crushing disappointment.
The Boxtrolls are a community of odd creatures that dwell underneath the cobblestone streets of Victorian era Cheesebridge. Legend has vilified them as evil bandits that prey on the town’s most precious resources: their cheeses and their children. The two things are not necessarily listed in order of importance. The Boxtrolls are a curious sort. They wear recycled cardboard boxes the way turtles inhabit their shells and have names designated by the cover of their box. Fish, Wheels, Bucket and Shoe are some examples. I’d be hard pressed to discern the personality of one from another. Their nonsensical babble-speak begs comparison to the Minions from Despicable Me. The Boxtrolls are a sharp contrast from those similar though much more successful critters. I mean those delightful little rapscallions are getting their own movie. One would think these oddballs were meant to be endearing given they inspired the title of this movie. However the Boxtrolls have been relegated to the sidelines in favor of two other human characters.
Laika’s latest is based on Alan Snow’s 2005 book “Here Be Monsters!” but the real protagonists of the film are two human children. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is a boy that, was given to the Boxtrolls to raise. He’s later discovered by Winnie (Elle Fanning), an overbearing young girl that becomes Eggs’ first friend from up above. Apparently she is there to berate him that he’s a human boy and not a troll at all. Ok, you’re technically correct, but seriously, could you please just shut up? She’s such a killjoy. Their shenanigans didn’t amuse or interest me in the slightest. On the baddie side we have Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as the main antagonist. He’s also got three henchman Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Gristle voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan. They provide what little humor there is. Mr. Snatcher is out to exterminate every last Boxtroll so that he can become a member of the White Hats, an elite club of cheese aficionados that serve as Cheesebridge’s city council. Yes, he’s essentially advocating genocide with his bizarre Steampunk fashioned metal contraption. Heavy stuff that feels out of place. It’s important to infuse the macabre with some emotion. This doesn’t. Side note: his allergic skin reaction to his beloved cheese is pretty disgusting.
It pains me to say this, but The Boxtrolls is a charmless, tedious bore. The picture attempts to be something that it is not, an American attempt at British humor. Aardman Studios, excels at this. Remember Chicken Run? Of course you do because it was enjoyable fun. The Boxtrolls in contrast has a meandering plot largely devoid of laughs. It’s hampered by stock characters that fail to enchant. The story and the personalities are thoroughly uninvolving. Sadly generic to the core. Despite all that, the technique is gorgeous. Visually the production is a WOW. The beautifully rendered world with remarkable attention to detail, does captivate the senses. It’s easy to forget this is not computer assisted. These puppets have been painstakingly moved one frame at a time. Although the movement is so seamless, I can’t help but question whether some trickery is being employed. Regardless, it looks stunning. The hand drawn closing credits sequence which encapsulates the entire tale, is beautiful too. It’s even accompanied by a lovely cover version of the Pete Seeger hit “Little Boxes” by Portland band Loch Lomond. Additionally a brief post-credits scene highlights the painstaking process of stop motion animation. I suggest sticking around to enjoy it. It’s the most fascinating display in the whole film.