Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls
Dirs. Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi

3.5 out of 5

The first comparison that springs to mind when describing the house style of stop-motion animation studio Laika is that of an old-fashioned pop-up storybook, so it's no surprise that the makers of the painstakingly detailed supernatural fables Coraline and Paranorman have turned to more antique inspirations for their latest film, The Boxtrolls.  Based on the Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls takes place in the whimsical Dickensian-steampunk setting of Cheesebridge, an impossibly vertical seaside town where the social elites wear tall white hats and chow down on brie and limburger.  When a ruthless pest exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) conspires to join their ranks, he creates a civic panic involving the Boxtrolls, curious and timid creatures who live beneath Cheesebridge and tinker with Rube Goldberg contraptions made from the mechanical detritus of the world above.  Their ranks include Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a human boy raised from infancy as a Boxtroll, who emerges from the underground to discover his true ancestry, only to be caught in the middle of Snatcher's demagoguery.

While not as fresh or as esoteric as Laika's earlier efforts - The Boxtrolls repeats a lot of the same messages about family, self-identity, and the perils of groupthink - it still captures the singular joy of watching a beautifully-illustrated story come to vivid life.  The studio attempts some of its most complicated sequences here, the achievements piling up like the cliffside shanties of Cheesebridge: a formal dance with dozens of individual puppets twirling around a ballroom, a gigantic wheel of cheese tumbling down a hill and into the ocean, a demon-like death machine belching smoke as it rips up cobblestone streets.  The creative spark extends to the stellar voice cast, another element of the film that is filled with pleasant surprises.  The character voice work here is so good and so tailored to maximum emotional effect - as opposed to immediate recognition - that I hesitate to single out specific performances for fear of creating preconceived notions and spoiling the effect.

Despite its fondness for tidy narrative reversals and reveals (that will admittedly read as big twists for its intended demographic), The Boxtrolls has an ingratiating quality that I suspect is tied up in the titular creatures themselves.  These Boxtrolls are straight from the E.T. school of ugly-cute: strange, deformed, alien beings that are nonetheless cuddly and charming.  As a species, they possess many wonderful idiosyncrasies - the way they retreat into their boxes when frightened, or drum on them in joyous approbation - yet have plenty of individual personality as well.  That's important when the human side of the story leans on pro forma conflicts and characters, save for Winnie (Elle Fanning), the headstrong, morbidly curious daughter of the town's head aristocrat and the Boxtrolls' lone ally aboveground.  The Boxtrolls advances the familiar notion that accepting diversity makes better citizens of us all, a sometimes obvious but utterly sincere message served up, fittingly, with just the right amount of weirdness. 

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