Despite having released only two films so far, Laika has offered a fresh and unique voice in film animation. With the brilliant (and I would even argue as close to perfect a film could be) Coraline and ParaNorman, there is an interesting blend of dark imagery reminiscent of films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Secret of NIMH, Return to Oz and some early Disney animation with the strong thematic and emotional resonance of a Pixar or even a Studio Ghibli production. Laika is also one of the few animation studios devoted to keeping stop motion animation alive, the other big one being Aardman Animations. Their most recent project, The Boxtrolls, is loosely based on the book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, which is being adapted to the screen by writers, Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, and directors, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi.
The Boxtrolls takes place in the town of Cheesebridge, where every night a number of small creatures referred to as the Boxtrolls go out to scavenge for gears and gizmos. Among the Boxtrolls is a boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and they find themselves being hunted by the evil Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). Along the way, Eggs meets Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning) and an adventure to save the Boxtrolls ensues.
Given the high expectations that Laika has set up for themselves, it is unfortunate that The Boxtrolls doesn’t quite meet them. While it’s far from being a bad film, there are some big problems that prevent an otherwise good film from being a great one. These problems are rooted with the script. From the beginning, there’s an odd disconnect. It is likely due to the fact the film doesn’t really have a consistent protagonist from the beginning. It takes a while before we’re even introduced to Eggs, and we have been following the film from the perspective of two Boxtrolls named Fish and Shoes. During this part of the film we see Eggs as a baby, and it’s only when he grows up as an older child does he take a more active role in the plot. However, once Winnie enters the film, she becomes a very prominent figure that makes Eggs a passive character again, at least until the final act kicks in. It’s not as if the film is an ensemble piece either, as Eggs is clearly meant to be the main character. Yet his lack of active participation in the story, until the last half hour, and his lack of a real character arc causes the film to lose that imperative connection that Coraline and ParaNorman managed to create within the first few minutes. This issue also causes the film to have some odd structural problems and minor pacing issues, which the film suffers from mostly during the middle, where it felt a bit aimless. Perhaps these issues, especially that of Eggs’ character, might be due to the fact that the film is not nearly as character-driven as Coraline or ParaNorman. There are many more characters getting much more screen time than necessary, and as a result, the film lacks the focus needed for the story.
There is also one element to the film that I found troubling. There is a reveal, which by the way has no bearing over the plot whatsoever, but I’ll offer a spoiler warning here anyway. If you don’t want to know, then skip the rest of this paragraph. There is a famous performer in the town known as Madame Frou-Frou, she has one scene where we see her do an annual performance of a show where she exploits the fear of Boxtrolls that the citizens have and increase their paranoia, propaganda essentially. She is very close to Winnie’s father and many of the gentlemen of high society; they openly admire her and praise her. It turns out that she is really Archibald in disguise. When the townspeople finally find out, they react in disgust and Winnie’s father even comments that he “regrets so many things.” For one, the Madame Frou-Frou character has no point at all, and is not necessary for the story. The fact that Archibald cross-dresses to become her is pointless and adds nothing. To me this is very problematic inclusion of transphobic material that left an uncomfortable feeling. Now, when I say “problematic,” I mean it’s problematic in the same way the whole twist and reveal in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective can seem insensitive. It’s not that the creators are going out of their way to intentionally make a specific group of people out to be a sneaky, backstabbers that are out to fool you for their own desires, it’s just an unfortunate implication that comes from the use of these tired stereotypes. I probably wouldn’t have made a big deal about this with any other film, but considering that Laika has always seemed to be catering to progressive characterizations it seemed so cheap and out of place. This is the same company that started off with a film starring a compelling, young female character with Coraline and in ParaNorman, casually revealed a major supporting character to be gay. And while that reveal was a punchline to a long running gag, it was a punchline at another character’s expense. Even with The Boxtrolls, there was a trailer (which featured a song that played during the credits by the way) that mentions that there are many different types of parents, mother and father, mother and mother, father and father. Unfortunately, that theme wasn’t as thoroughly explored in the film, but it was an idea that was in the filmmakers’ mind during production, so it just seems odd that they resorted to a very unnecessarily nasty stereotype for the sake of an unfunny joke that adds nothing in story or character. I don’t think this issue takes away any enjoyment I personally had with the film, but for those who are more sensitive to this subject matter and might find it to be upsetting or offensive, here’s fair warning.
While it’s disappointing to see Laika falter in the script department, it’s at least not so bad that it taints the overall experience. Because while the movie does have issues, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable enough experience to forgive any faults. The stop motion and the art design are some of the best Laika has ever produced. It’s probably one of the few films with a color palette consisting mostly of brown and grey that still end up being beautiful in its own twisted way. The craftsmanship behind the film is truly breathtaking at points, while also adding to a lot of the humorous elements of the film. There are jokes in the film that kids will have fun with, but also keep the adults giggling as well (cheese jokes…so many cheese jokes). It never goes too extreme in either direction and manages to keep a good balance of family friendly fun with a gleefully grotesque aesthetic. You don’t see family films being this dirty without resorting to cheap gross-out gags, and it’s nice to see The Boxtrolls handle that aspect very well. And of course the voice acting is top notch. Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Elle Fanning are great in the leading roles. Ben Kingsley is clearly having a blast as Archibald Snatcher. And with a wide range of supporting actors including Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Simon Pegg, there is no shortage of good talent at the top of their game. Of course I can’t praise the film without mentioning the wonderful score by Dario Marianelli, who does a great job with creating this lighthearted adventurous feel to the film.
While I’d be lying if I said The Boxtrolls is a bit disappointing, it’s still a good film overall. The one comparison that comes to mind is Brave, which is a good movie, but doesn’t necessarily live up to Pixar’s usual stamp of quality. Some problems in the script’s structure, characterization and relationship development (as well as that one problematic element that I mentioned earlier) are present, but the film manages to win you over nonetheless with stunning animation, a unique sense of humor and bizarre presentation. There’s certainly more of an interesting voice and artistic expression to be found in The Boxtrolls that is hardly seen in most mainstream family films. In this case, I’d rather take the film that takes the most chances and does something different over seeing other, more typical and uninspired family movies. I do highly recommend this film, and if you’re a fan of animation, this is a must see. Also, stay during the credits, and you’ll get a clever glimpse at the mind-boggling process that the filmmakers had to go through.
Side Note: While, the film certainly could have been better, I am very excited to see what Laika creates next. Apparently, there are two books that have been optioned by Laika for adaptations. The first is the children’s fantasy novel, Wildwood. It’s written by Colin Melony, who you might know as a singer-songwriter for the band, The Decembrists (and his wife, Carson Ellis did the illustrations for the book). The other is Phillip Reeve’s fantasy book, Goblins, which is actually the first (of three, so far) in his Goblin series. There hasn’t been much revealed in terms of development as of yet, but I am confident that Laika will deliver.