Stop-motion animation studio Laika has never shied at putting the scares into its lovingly crafted features, and their slate has consistently folded in truly terrifying elements, progressive social commentary, and enough snappy dialogue to keep the adults in the audience both happy and engaged. Even if films like Coraline and ParaNorman were sold as “kids films,” they’re more than that, and plenty of animated films are written off as kid stuff, just by virtue of the medium they are made in. The Boxtrolls is no different, packed with plenty of dark bits and a handful of gross gags that harken back to classic fairy tales, which typically tend to be much more mature and upsetting than Disney would like you to believe. (Not sure? Check out Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid.)
Set in the fictional – well, probably fictional – town of Cheesebridge, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s film imagines a humble hamlet marked by two things: its residents’ adoration for cheese and a persistent problem with boxtrolls. The tiny be-boxed monsters live beneath the city’s streets, only coming aboveground in the dark of night, bent on digging through the Cheesebridge trash in hopes of turning up metal bits and bracks that they can appropriate for their massive engineering projects. The people of Cheesebridge are terrified of the boxtrolls – and with apparently good reason, as the trolls have long been believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of a tiny baby many years before. Still worse, the boxtrolls reportedly killed their baby’s father before absconding with the kid, who they might have done god-knows-what-to.
But the secret of the boxtrolls isn’t what they did with the baby, but why and how. No, the boxtrolls aren’t evil – they’re actually quite charming and affectionate and sweet and smart, and the people of Cheesebridge have been utterly duped when it comes to their perception of the sewer-dwellers. The people of Cheesebridge are rendered in classic meticulous Laika style, but their overpainted faces (covered in Impressionistic swirls of color) and nasty natures made them viciously (and purposely) unappealing. Far cuter are the boxtrolls themselves, kitted out in individual boxes that they take their names from – the troll in the fish box? He’s “Fish.” The one in the shoebox? That’s “Shoe!” The one outfitted in an egg box? It’s “Eggs”! – but as simple as that may sound, there’s a twist. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) isn’t a troll at all. He’s a human boy.
Of course the boxtrolls didn’t kill the baby, they’ve loved him, and the result is a happy pre-teen who, oops, thinks he’s a boxtroll. That’s going to be a problem.
It’s not enough that the residents of Cheesebridge fear the boxtrolls, they also want them to be banished from the town, and that’s where the evil Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) comes in, having made a promise many years ago to eradicate the boxtroll “menace” in order to earn himself a place amongst the town’s cheese-obsessed leaders, the White Hats. As Snatcher and his mostly merry band of henchman gleefully do away with the boxtrolls every night (save for Richard Ayodade’s Mr. Pickles, who slowly realizes that their work might not be exactly altruistic), Eggs and Fish and Shoe watch their numbers dwindle, and Eggs’ unexpectedly idyllic childhood is threatened within an inch of its life.
It takes another human child – the plucky, bossy, hilarious Winnie (Elle Fanning) – to uncover what’s really going on, and when she and the shy Eggs eventually team up to expose Snatcher for what he really is (beyond being just, like, really gross and also highly lactose intolerant) and keep him from taking down Winnie’s higher-up father, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). Oh, and stealing any more boxtrolls, who all happen to still be alive, though they’ve been put to work on something that looks decidedly evil.
The Boxtrolls doesn’t balk at skewing towards more mature audiences, and it’s genuinely scary, decidedly adult, and more than a little gross. Still, the boxtrolls themselves are so charming and the core story (one of tolerance, love, and bravery) is so sweet that little ones will surely eat it right up. The film is packed with jokes and gags and humor to spare, a clever presentation that’s only bolstered by stellar voicework and an immersive atmosphere. It’s another winner for Laika, and a nifty continuation of their unique and proud slate.
Oh, and the cheese. There’s just so much cheese.
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