‘The Boxtrolls’ packs lots of heart, laughs

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The Boxtrolls
Written by Irena Brignull & Adam Pava
Directed by Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi
USA, 2014

 

The Boxtrolls is a delightful animated gem that has enough frenetic action to entertain the kids and plenty of subversive humor to keep the adults chuckling.  It’s the perfect way to spend a day with your rambunctious little brother, and probably far less destructive.  The stop-motion design is gorgeous, with loads of tiny details for the curious eye.  If Big Hero 6 is a bit too saccharine for your palate, this makes a suitably-twisted alternative.

The Boxtrolls are a demented bunch of underground cave dwellers who sleep all day and then plunder the streets of Cheesebridge every night.  If it isn’t nailed down, the Boxtrolls are probably going to ‘liberate’ it.  One of the film’s many clever conceits is that each Boxtroll’s name comes from the insignia on the recycled cardboard box they inhabit. For instance, the two most prominent Boxtrolls are Fish (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) and Shoe (Steve Blum).  This is the first manifestation of the film’s overriding theme regarding self-identity and our ability (or inability) to change it.

There is one among them who doesn’t quite fit in.  His name is Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a boy who, according to legend, was kidnapped by the Boxtrolls when he was only a baby.  The citizens of Cheesebridge live in perpetual fear of these menacing creatures, so much so that they’ve enlisted the help of a charlatan named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley).  Together with his crew of ‘Red Hats,’ Snatcher rounds up the Boxtrolls for his own nefarious purposes; mainly to impress the leader of the cheese-obsessed ‘White Hats,’ lead by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris).  There is also a plucky young heroine named Winnie (Elle Fanning), whose pre-conceived notions about the Boxtrolls will be challenged when she spies Eggs during a late-night incursion.  There is a lot of plot here, but none of it is terribly complicated or original.  It’s a classic story about ‘outsiders’ gaining acceptance from a world that doesn’t understand them.

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With its Dickensian set design and pitch-black sensibility, The Boxtrolls looks like something Roald Dahl might have concocted after eating some bad cheese.  Perhaps that is the best description for each of the efforts from Laika Studio, which has found its sweet spot playing Pixar’s twisted stepbrother.  If Pixar was playing with a shiny toy truck in the driveway, Laika was probably in the backyard burning ants with a magnifying glass.

Directors, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, have a healthy appreciation for the absurd, but they never forget the pleasures of the sublime.  For every Rube Goldberg contraption there is a delicate plot device.  As Eggs watches street performers re-enact the legend surrounding his kidnapping, he makes the subtle realization that he’s different from the Boxtrolls who raised him.  It’s a powerful moment that never distracts from the lightheartedness of the scene.  Again and again, the filmmakers expertly meld imagination with their thematic objectives.

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Working from Alan Snow’s novel, Here Be Monsters!, writers, Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, create dynamic characters, despite the fact that Boxtrolls speak only gibberish.  In particular, they have found a classic villain in Archibald Snatcher.  Here is a man consumed by his need for status, whose very nature is defined by the color of his hat.  And yet, what he craves the most—deliriously pungent cheeses—is the one thing that may facilitate his downfall.  It’s that type of inspired irony that keeps the familiar premise of The Boxtrolls fresh and surprising.

Of course, in a film about trolls, you’re bound to find a few warts.  The pacing is a bit uneven in the first act, which might have younger viewers fidgeting in their seats.  Winnie is a capable heroine, but she’s deprived the same life-changing transformation as the other characters, which makes her feel comparatively thin.  Also, there is a character introduced later in the film that is completely unnecessary and somewhat distracting.  Still, these problems do little to undermine the goodwill engendered by this sweet, off-kilter world.

Acceptance will always be a popular theme for family movies, and The Boxtrolls continues that proud tradition.  Kids will love the central storyline about society accepting these strange and lovable creatures, but adults will appreciate its message about accepting your own identity.  It sneaks a great deal of depth into its dark zaniness, so it should stand up to repeated viewings.  Perfect for keeping your little monsters occupied on those cross-country trips.

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