There is a certain magical quality that is unique to stop-motion films, undoubtedly connected to the tactile, time-consuming, and subtle manipulation that goes into bringing the characters and their world to life. Of late, US studio Laika has taken the process to new levels through incredible features like Coraline (2009) and Paranorman (2012). Their latest production The Boxtrolls carries on the tradition, using the studio’s funereal aesthetic to spin out a fantastical story that has a lot going on underneath.
Adapted from Alan Snow’s novel ‘Here be Monsters!’, The Boxtrolls takes place on, and under, the spindly streets of Cheesebridge – imagine Roald Dahl’s take on Dickens’ London and you’ll
be somewhere close to the visual and cultural vibe. Cheesebridge is ruled over by the White Hats, a bourgeoisie elite led by the gormless Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), who spends more time sampling rare cheeses than dealing with municipal matters. Down on the cobbles, there is a widespread fear of Boxtrolls, who come up through the sewers at night to rummage through the
rubbish, collecting sprockets, springs, and other bits of metal to tinker together some steampunk creations for their underground world. Led on by the lure of being awarded a White Hat, Archibald
Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) sets out on a mission to destroy the Boxtrolls, and it is up to Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a boy raised by Boxtrolls, to stop him.
The Boxtrolls is a film that is brimming with little details, the sets underground are densely populated by whirring trinkets, and beautiful makeshift instruments. Despite what the humans above might think, the Boxtrolls live a peaceful, egalitarian existence. Each Boxtroll is named after the box they wear (alongside Eggs, we have Fish, Sweets, etc.) and they fulfil roles that serve the greater community. By night they set out to scavenge materials and food, and by day they sleep stacked up together in a perfect example of cosy, cardboard communism. In contrast, the streets above are overflowing with all the travails of modern society – cramped houses that threaten to topple over, populated by people that are living life blinkered to anything other than the fulfilment of their own desires.
That level of detail spills over into characters too. Humans in The Boxtrolls are repulsive in the best possible way. An homage to that visceral and belchy-style of Roald Dahl embodied in books like The Twits, there is enough slurping, bug-eating, and nose-picking to make adults wince and kids laugh out loud. Kingsley’s Snatcher character, all pot belly and gangly limbs, has no doubt secured a spot alongside Cruella de Vil and Lord Voldemort in the pantheon of genuinely creepy childhood villains.
But what is so refreshing about The Boxtrolls is that while delivering a straightforward narrative, it never feels like it relies on stock characters – in many ways Snatcher is the typical evildoer, but we are given enough information to understand his motivations. While the show stealer for laughs is assuredly the precocious Winnie (Elle Fanning), every character on screen has idiosyncrasies that prevent the story devolving into tried-and-tested territories.
The unconventional style of The Boxtrolls will make it will be immediately appealing to some, but those on the fence should be encouraged to take the leap. If children’s films can be read as a
measure of a cultural zeitgeist, then here is one that above all others deserves to be seen. At its heart, it is a film that asks us to question what defines family, individual identity, and ones place in
the society. Make sure to stay with the existential musings through the credits to get an incredible glimpse behind the scenes.