Film Review | The Boxtrolls

The studio that brought you Paranorman scores another home run with this steampunk-tinged stopmotion adventure.

Odd one in: Game of Thrones’s Bran, Isaac-Hempstead Wright voices ‘Eggs’, our human protagonist in this quirky stop-motion
Odd one in: Game of Thrones’s Bran, Isaac-Hempstead Wright voices ‘Eggs’, our human protagonist in this quirky stop-motion

Not too many films are original these days. It’s not just that originality is risky for a studio to pull off: it’s also quite hard. In the case of Laika Studios (the makers of the charming Halloween-tinged stop-motion feature Paranorman), achieving originality comes at the expense of a number of accoutrements.

Take a previously successful book – Here be Monsters by Alan Snow – then hire an all-star cast of actors to do the voices, including the likes of (Sir) Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Jared Harris and Toni Collette; along with Game of Thrones’s Isaac-Hempstead Wright and Elle Fanning – fresh off the box office success of Maleficent – as your plucky young leads.

But all of this is surface detail. Because as with Paranorman, it’s not any brand recognition from the book that will sell the experience, neither the star power of its voiceover ensemble.

No, what makes The Boxtrolls such a richly enjoyable experience is Laika’s expert blend of old-school stop motion animation and CGI, as we’re plunged into a quirky Dickensian city ‘infested’ by (unfairly demonised) subterranean trolls.

Not that the script by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava is to be sniffed at either, but what works about it is what works in most clever animation aimed at the young adult audience and beyond.

In this little chiaroscuro masterpiece of hybrid animation forms, the alchemy between form and content is what it’s all about in the end.

So we have a bit of an ugly-duckling-in-reverse story going on at the beginning: our human protagonist ‘Eggs’ (Hempstead Wright, GoT’s Bran) has grown up believing himself to be one of the ‘Boxtrolls’ – scavenging but benevolent goblin workers who live in the sewers and camouflage themselves in cardboard boxes whenever they venture out in to the world above.

They have good reason to be cautious, as the socially ambitious pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) is determined to catch and kill each and every Boxtroll.

Playing into the public’s irrational fear of the creatures, Snatcher – with the aid of his morally confused henchmen Mr Trout (Frost) and Mr Pickles (Ayodae) and the less confused but dumber Mr Gristle (Tracy Morgan) – Snatcher hopes that performing an effective Boxtroll cull will ensure him a spot a the high society league table.

 

The league table being, in this case, the cheese-scoffing coterie of negligent father Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), leader of the ‘White Hats’ and the city’s de facto mayor.

It’s when Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Fanning) spots Eggs during a fateful Boxtroll overground mission that things get complicated: suddenly aware that he’s not a Boxtroll after all, Eggs has to learn to navigate the world of humans in an attempt to rescue his friends from the murderous Snatcher.

Instead of the one-note themes of individualistic self-empowerment found in 3D animation of the Pixar ilk, The Boxtrolls takes a far broader sweep.

Eggs’s journey is a familiar one, but layered over subtext that also takes in prejudice, toxic social ambition and the dangers of laissez-faire parenting, it feels like we’ve been dropped into a richer storytelling landscape.

It’s wittier than its Pixar/Dreamworks counterparts too; with the humour less reliant on sight gags and more on wit. Searching for ‘Curdle Street’, Eggs is advised that, “Milk [Street] turns into it”, and seemingly channelling a particularly funny Mitchell & Webb sketch, Trout and Pickles are on the verge of realising that they are, in fact, the bad guys of the piece.

But once again, it’s the animation we really come here for, and I’m more than happy to report that the film is far from a disappointment on this front too. Where Paranorman effectively offered a stouter alternative to quirky-for-quirky’s sake Tim Burton-style Halloween fare, here we’ve got a lovingly rendered slice of steampunk: a fairy tale city that’s not afraid to show its metallic nuts and bolts.

It’s also heartening that while CGI is judiciously employed to enhance and deepen the city’s rich landscape, the stop-motion puppet work is mostly just that: good old fashioned puppet work – a time-honoured if laborious task (as fourth-wall-breaking credits sting reminds us).

The Boxtrolls certainly doesn’t take the easy way out. Which means it will richly repay your attention. Jolly good show.  

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