Is there any better form of animation than stop-motion? In this day and age where every cartoon movie appears to be a CGI monstrosity, anything hand-drawn is wonderful; anything fully hand-made is nothing short of miraculous. With The Boxtrolls, Laika, the Oregon-based studio behind the ghoulish likes of Coraline and ParaNorman, have fully come into their own, replacing Aardman as the go-to animation house for stop motion. In fact, I would happily go further; the studio’s third cinematic feature has placed them at the top-table of animation studios, positioning them alongside Studio Ghibli and Pixar as the most consistently reliable creators of cartoons that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike, without pandering to either demographic. Laika understand that the best children’s movies, from Bambi to Labyrinth, have an inherent sense of horror. The Boxtrolls isn’t as obviously indebted to the genre as ParaNorman, but it does contain more than its fair share of moments that will give younger viewers sleepless nights.
The film is set in Victorian London, where the Boxtrolls are considered a threat to society after allegedly stealing an infant boy years earlier. That boy is Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, best known as the very annoying Brann Stark on Game of Thrones), who has been living as a Boxtroll, under the impression that he too is one of them, for the past decade. His existence consists of rooting through rubbish bins and eating insects for every meal with the rest of the trolls, whom he considers his family- his difference in appearance and the fact he can speak proper English are blamed on both a disability and a speech impediment on his behalf. The lives of all the trolls are threatened when exterminator Archibald Snatcher (played by Ben Kingsley, at the closest a role in a kids film can channel his role in Sexy Beast) is told he can become a member of The White Hats, an exclusive cheese tasting club (yes, really) if he exterminates all the trolls. He kidnaps them, yet leaves Eggs behind- forcing him to go up to the human world for the first time to rescue them.
If the above synopsis isn’t a clear indication, what the film has going for it is that it is truly bonkers, with other crucial subplots including cross-dressing and lactose intolerant cheese tasting. In the current climate, when even studios like Pixar are playing it safe, trotting out tried-and-tested formulas repeatedly, something this bizarre should be welcomed with open arms. It’s fairly understandable if it doesn’t connect with younger audiences though, as it does walk a tricky tonal tightrope. For example, this is a far funnier film than Laika’s two previous efforts, due to both the amount of cringe-inducing punning relating to cheese (a giant wheel of brie called “The Brie-hemoth”) and due to Richard Ayoade’s comic sidekick role that steals the entire film. Yet in spite of the lightness of humour it is as dark as either Coraline or ParaNorman, with the prospect of death featuring prominently as a plot point, such as Eggs’ discovery that his own father appeared to be murdered in front of him when he was a baby.
The characters are also drawn unusually for a kids film. For example, narrative principles dictate that the character of an absent father is supposed to be resolved by the end of the narrative by having him spend more time with his children. No such thing here, as white-hatted cheese baron Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) completely disregards his daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) even after her narrative breakthrough that in any other film would ensure they spent more time together. This is of course a fault by design; the unconventional character arcs at least ensure the story can continue in the most unconventional way possible. It might prove jarring to many audiences (a sentence I appear to have written quite a lot in recent reviews), yet the fact the story is drawn out this way at least renders it unique- especially when the bare bones of the narrative are not too dissimilar to The Jungle Book when written in synopsis form.
To adults and older children, The Boxtrolls should be an utter delight, with beautiful stop motion animation and a cast of oddball characters who are fun to spend time with. Probably not the best idea to show it to younger children though; on opening day alone the cinema I work at had a number of young children dragging their parents out of screenings prematurely, with the look of terror etched onto their faces. They may have nightmares tonight, but they should only be worrying about not sitting all the way through one of the best animated films of the year, a delightful reminder that kids films are supposed to be weird.