Stop-motion animation studio Laika burst onto the scene in 2009 with the now beloved Coraline, which infused spooky visuals with slapstick humour and real emotion. Then came ParaNorman which managed to surpass their first effort, to deliver a modern animation classic that gloriously referenced all manner of horror movies and tropes while still being a unique, clever and heartfelt film all on its own. Now, two years later, they’re back with The Boxtrolls and it continues their run of charmingly idiosyncratic and gorgeously animated works.
Based on the novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, the film is set in a town called Cheesebridge, which is ran by a mainly aristocratic population obsessed with – you guessed it – eating cheese. Meanwhile, under the city live mischievous creatures called The Boxtrolls who spend their time using cardboard boxes as disguises, scavenging the land above for trash that they can incorporate into their underground society.
The story follows Eggs (voiced by Game of Thrones star Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a young orphan boy who was raised by the trolls. One day he and his adopted family start to be targeted by the evil Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) who plans to exterminate any Boxtroll he can find and so Eggs has to do whatever he can to save his family and way of life.
Like Coraline and ParaNorman before it, The Boxtrolls isn’t exactly what you would call a conventional kids film. It’s an unusual concept, the likes of which can easily work on the written page where the reader’s imagination is the limit, but realising it on-screen doesn’t seem as straightforward. Luckily the talented team at Laika have adapted the world pretty damn faithfully while still making it intensely and gorgeously cinematic in its own right.
Kids will love this film. It appeals to the wonder and creativity of childhood; that old school innocence of playing in the back garden or climbing trees, of finding the perfect hiding place around the house and jumping out like a monster to scare someone as they walked past. It’s a total celebration of silliness and cheekiness that the young ones in the audience will recognise and latch onto, not to mention the array of loveable oddball characters (hello merchandise!).
However, as much as it will appeal to kids, this isn’t the kind of throwaway variety we’ve sadly seen too much of over these last few months. Whereas the likes of ‘Planes 2’ and ‘The Nut Job’ were mere distractions for the kids with no real weight to them, ‘The Boxtrolls’ explores some surprisingly complex issues about nature versus nurture and the importance of family, especially in trying times, to name but a couple. That’s very rare in a movie that’s sold primarily to the younger market, but ‘The Boxtrolls’ admirably goes straight for it while at the same time never feeling like it’s shoving a heavy-handed message down your throat.
The film sports a superb voice cast to add even more personality to the already compelling characters, including the likes of Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Elle Fanning, Richard Ayoade, Toni Collette and Simon Pegg. Fanning is particularly good as the feisty and determined Winnie, daughter of the snooty cheese-loving Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), who joins Eggs in his mission, while the brilliantly name Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) makes for a formidable – and very frightening for the kids – baddie. The script is utterly witty, chalk full of clever jokes and sight gags that should have children and adults alike giggling.
But at the end of the day it’s the animators who are the real stars of the show, skilfully bringing this complex world to life in wonderful, delightful and meticulous detail with animation that’s as technically impressive as it is completely fitting to the story at hand. It may be slicker and more polished than the previous two efforts but it loses none of the personality or charm. Compared to Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks, Laika is still a toddler but, if it wasn’t the case before, ‘The Boxtrolls’ solidifies them as an animation studio to be reckoned with.
The Boxtrolls is released in UK cinemas on September 12th.
This review was previously published on Scotcampus.