The stop-motion (or stop-frame) animation house Laika has carved out a wonderful little corner of the animation universe that seems to cater to children with a tolerance for the slightly scary. With gloriously realized works like CORALINE and PARANORMAN, Laika in some instances pushed the limits to thrills aimed at kids, and no one seems to be the worse for wear. Based on Alan Snow's novel “Here Be Monsters!”, THE BOXTROLLS seems even more slanted toward the grown folks who might be bringing those children to the movies, with a more British, existential slant on the humor that might appeal to those who grew up with Monty Python before they got into old Tim Burton films.
Co-directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, THE BOXTROLLS tells the story of the town of Cheesebridge, which believes that its biggest threat (to humans and their cheese supply) are creatures that live under the streets, in the sewers, whose only articles of clothing are cardboard boxes into which they can squeeze their whole bodies if they so desire. Urban legend tells tale about boxtrolls snatching an infant out of the arms of his father, only to be eaten whole. In fact, said infant grew up to think he was a boxtroll himself, named Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright of "Game of Thrones"), who thinks he's actually a boxtroll himself, despite the fact that he's twice as tall as any of them and he's the only one who speaks English.
Typically, the only thing that boxtrolls snatch from above ground is junk, which they use to build and decorate their palatial sewer-based dwelling. But there have been enough sightings by humans that the town is frightened to go out at night, so the leadership (cheese enthusiasts, all of them, headed by Lord Portley Rind (Jared Harris) hires a boxtroll exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley, in the role of his career, seriously).
Desperate to join the town leadership, Snatcher promises to rid the town of boxtrolls forever for a membership, and he sets out on an aggressive, nasty mission to capture all the boxtrolls with the help of two borderline intelligent henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, whose characters deserve their own short, at least) and a raving lunatic henchman (Tracy Morgan as Mr. Gristle, who will became a fan favorite instantaneously).
In an effort to figure out how to snap the snatchings by Snatcher, Eggs dresses like a boy and goes above ground to do a little investigating with the help of Portley-Rind's daughter, Winnier (Elle Fanning), who is obsessed with meeting a boxtroll and confused why Eggs is so weird. As the film goes on, THE BOXTROLLS gets stranger, more giddily grotesque and funnier by the minute. A song-and-dance number by a local diva during a celebration commemorating the anniversary of the day the baby went missing is unbelievable, especially when you consider that the song she's singing is a new Eric Idle composition.
THE BOXTROLLS isn't just well written, but the production and costume design are so intricate and surreal that the temptation is to freeze-frame the film several times a minute just to admire the attention to detail and pure artistry of the work. At first glance, the plot might seem a bit thin, but I looked at Eggs' ordeal as being one about a boy who doesn't quite fit in anywhere and is simply trying to find a home. Any child who comes across as a little odd will readily identify.
Throw in Toni Collette and Simon Pegg (both also in HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS this week as well) to round out the voice cast, and THE BOXTROLLS is downright inspired most of the time. I've seen the film twice, and that almost seems like it should be required because there is so much to look at in every frame. The second go-round, my eyes scanned the intricately rendered sets and the details in every room and building and vehicle. During the big battle scene between the Eggs and Snatcher near the end of the film, there is so much to look at and admire that it might make you weep.
A final, mid-credits sequence might be one of the greatest and most moving tributes to the impossible work these animators do on a handmade film like this; don't you dare leave before you see it. THE BOXTROLLS should be fairly digestible for younger audience members, but I really do believe the film is aimed slightly more at older kids and adults, not because the subject matter or visuals are that mature, but because a great deal of the humor is going to soar right over some kids' heads. There's plenty in the film to entertain the hell out of everybody, scare a few and dazzle all eyes.