While the U.K.-based Aardman Animations is still most people’s reference point for stop-motion animation – even if they don’t know the exact names of the people responsible for Wallace and Gromit – American studio Laika has made an impressive run for Aardman’s claymation crown. Between Coraline and ParaNorman, Laika has managed to imitate Aardman’s lovingly handcrafted aesthetic, and the elaborate slapstick of their comedy. But they’ve also managed to distinguish themselves with storytelling and visuals that take ostensible children’s movies into darker, more mature territory than most family-friendly animation.
At first blush, Laika’s latest, The Boxtrolls, seems like the sort of shameless Aardman rip-off one would expect a fledgling stop-motion studio to attempt with their first feature. In reality, it’s more of a “best of both worlds” scenario. From Aardman, Laika has borrowed the mechanized whimsy, and cheese obsessed, dim-witted adults of Wallace and Gromit. From American animation, Boxtrolls has the star vocal talent (just not American stars), a lesson-heavy story of self-identity, and a cavalcade of supporting critters that seem ready-made for Happy Meal toys. But it’s all stitched together with the same intelligent craftsmanship, both physical and emotional, that makes Boxtrolls highly satisfying, despite a patchwork construction.
Set in the towering town of Cheesebridge, the film stars Game of Throne’s Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Eggs, a boy raised by an underground society of the titular trolls. Taken in by the little creatures when he was just a baby, Eggs, like the rest of his adoptive family, is named after the particular type of cardboard container he wears around his torso. The cartons provide Eggs and the other trolls a useful place to hide during their late-night scavenging missions up to the surface, where they pilfer anything they can get their hands on from the troll-fearing townsfolk.
The conceit of the trolls, who are fascinated by any mechanical doodad they can get their hands on, is essentially an excuse for Laika to show off just how well they can make tiny objects out of clay. The self-indulgence would be more galling if Laika animation weren’t something worth indulging in. The contours and physics of the boxes alone are astoundingly lifelike. The detail put into each individual item is impressive enough, but Boxtrolls fills out every scene and set like a junkyard art gallery. No less striking are the character animations, which play both within and against the constraints of stop-motion to great effect. A mustache will curl and uncurl believably, but a furious eye-twitch is always funnier the more exaggerated it gets.
Much of the story similarly feels like it’s been constructed around Laika knowing what it is they do best. Ben Kingsley is a phlegmy delight as the film’s villain, Archibald Snatcher, a bloated Boxtroll exterminator who uses all manner of contraptions to try and rid the town of the blue beasties once and for all. Boxtrolls isn’t particularly subtle about its metaphors, or breaking any new ground with its main narrative arc, which sees Eggs having to balance his identity as both a human, and honorary Boxtroll.
The throughline of Boxtrolls is nothing special, but as is often the case with animation, the details are what’s most memorable. With their cartoonish flexibility and babbling speech, the Boxtrolls seem designed to ape the immensely popular, and even more immensely obnoxious Minions from Despicable Me, but each of the trolls can be distinguished by more than just their chosen piece of cardboard. It seems unlikely a viewer could leave the film without having picked a favorite Boxtroll of their own.
Just as important and engaging are the humans. Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost all-but steal the show as a pair of Snatcher’s lackeys who constantly question the moral optics of their actions. Elle Fanning provides the sole female presence of any import as Winnie, a high society girl who befriends Eggs. Her own story arc is set from page one, but through Winnie, Laika finds an outlet for some of their more playfully macabre sensibilities. When Winnie first visits the lair of the Boxtrolls, it’s a crushing disappointment to see neither the rivers of blood or mountains of bone she’d heard so much about.
Though less morbid than ParaNorman and not nearly as surreal as Coraline, The Boxtrolls still might but a little much for the youngest of viewers. Instead of pop culture gags, it plays to adults with the occasional meta-joke (including a hilarious, philosophical post-credit scene), and some winning slapstick that should land across most age groups. Compared to more vanilla animated fare, The Boxtrolls is a bit of a grotesquerie, all the way up to a finale that’s maybe one climax too many, but there’s a messy, scraped knee adventuresses that keeps the action consistently lively. True to its originators, the film is in love with creation, and seeing how things work, even if that means getting your hands dirty. Though a little thin on original moralizing, the richness of a film like The Boxtrolls is in looking at a bizarre, fantastical creation, and feeling like you could step right into it.
The Boxtrolls charms with its stunning animation and memorable assemblage of creatures and craftwork.