2009’s Coraline, the first independently produced movie from Oregon-based studio Laika, looked like an auteurist product through and through: Writer-director Henry Selick (adapting Neil Gaiman’s novel) had worked wonders in intricate stop-motion before with The Nightmare Before Christmas and James And The Giant Peach, and Coraline seemed both like a culmination of his craft and a design feat no other working filmmaker could equal. But Selick moved on, and Laika stayed in stop-motion with the flawed but striking ParaNorman, and now the whimsical, idiosyncratic new children’s-book adaptation The Boxtrolls. While Selick remains a magician in his highly specific field, Laika has proved he isn’t the only one with the magic touch. The studio has become an idiosyncratic house of wonders on the order of Aardman Animations, turning out projects with a distinctive flavor, but even moreso, with a Selick-esque ambition and attention to physical craft that remains astonishing in a digital age.
The Boxtrolls, inspired by Alan Snow’s sprawling children’s book Here Be Monsters!, centers on a community of grey-skinned, gap-toothed creatures who live under the snooty Victorian village of Cheesebridge. Boxtrolls are harmless tinkerers who scavenge broken machinery from Cheesebridge’s trash to improve the teetering Rube Goldberg devices that define their underground city. For all their mechanical prowess, they’re simple creatures who communicate in burbles and gurgles (they sound more or less like Joe Dante’s Gremlins), and are pathologically attached to the discarded cardboard boxes they wear like turtle shells, and retreat into when resting or frightened. They’re even named after whatever their boxes used to hold: Characters like Fish, Shoe, and Oil Can are instantly identifiable by the pictures on their boxes.
As the film begins, Fish has just stolen a human infant, who grows up in the caverns believing he’s a boxtroll named Eggs. The theft gives the town’s exterminator, a scheming social climber named Archibald Snatcher (plummily voiced by Ben Kingsley), the excuse he’s been looking for, and he badgers aristocrat Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) into promising that Snatcher can trade in the lowly red hat of an exterminator for the coveted white hat of a civil leader if he just gets rid of every boxtroll in town. While vilifying the boxtrolls as skin-eating, baby-snatching, terrifying monsters, Snatcher runs them down one by one. Eggs’ otherwise-happy childhood is marked by disappearances: His community sleeps in a neat cube of stacked boxes, and the time-lapse of that familial stack silently diminishing to a small, irregular blob as he grows up is a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of grief and loss. Eventually, Snatcher comes for Eggs’ foster father Fish, and Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright, best known as Game Of Thrones’ Bran Stark) has to brave the topside world to find him.
It’d be easy enough to read the usual kid-movie messages into what follows—be true to yourself, stand up for what you believe in, don’t let other people define you—but it’s a mark of Boxtrolls’ distinctiveness that the messages are more for the adult characters than for Eggs and his topside ally, Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning). Boxtrolls has its tiresome clichés, particularly in the character of the spoiled, snide, shrill Winnie, who can’t be helpful or bold without also being bossy and superior. (At least she has a powerful morbid streak, which gives her some color to go with all the screeching.) But it’s smarter than most kid films about getting a message across without preaching, and by subsuming any moral lesson into the overall rule, “Be brave when things are scary.”
That said, Boxtrolls isn’t nearly as scary as Paranorman. While it makes the most of the menacing, unpredictable Snatcher, with his scraggly teeth and Edvard Munch-esque sickly color scheme, it’s still friendly to a younger crowd. Snatcher’s three followers, Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickles, and Mr. Gristle (voiced, respectively, by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan) help establish the film’s poles: Gristle is a frightening psychopath, but Trout and Pickles are introspective comedic relief, even at their most villainous. The film also undercuts any terror with whimsy and goofiness—this is, at heart, a film about a man driven by a monomaniacal desire to change his hat color, largely so he can achieve a long-held fantasy of eating fine cheeses with the town’s genteel elites.
Boxtrolls’ obsession with cheese rivals the similar fetish in Aardman Animation’s Wallace & Gromit stories. So does the film’s absurdist, distinctly British-tinged humor, which has Snatcher confronting Lord Portley-Rind with, “The unspeakable has happened! We must speak of it immediately!” and sets a dazzling setpiece at a fancy ball, where Eggs makes sloppy use of what little Winnie’s taught him about manners. There’s periodic action to keep young viewers engaged, but this is more family comedy than thriller.
It’s also another of Laika’s beautiful artbox dreams. Boxtrolls’ world is fantastically detailed and physical, with every frame crammed with complicated machinery, hand-painted textures and handcrafted props, and a sense of vast and focused attention. Like Laika’s other films, it’s so fluid and solid, it could easily be mistaken for CGI. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi play with their three-dimensional spaces, swinging the cameras around corners and up heights to communicate how deep and elaborate this world is. They and their animators give their characters an energy and conviction that makes the animation invisible. (Except in a fantastic post-credits sequence. See The Reveal, below.) It’s easy to get caught up in the reality of this world, even though it’s so obviously a consciously designed, artificial construction, both physically and in the defiantly weird, lumpy narrative. In the process, they achieve for Laika what once seemed impossible: They live up to the standards set by Henry Selick, back when he was doing work like no one else.