Though juggernaut studios such as Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks have an almost monopoly like grip on the world of successful English language animation features, since 2009 there has been an emerging and growing competitor in the form of American production company Laika. Responsible for two recent hits in 2009’s Coraline and 2012’s ParaNorman, the studio specialise in stop-motion animation and are once again putting their creative skills to the test with their new release, The Boxtrolls. After an intriguing and suitably drawn out teaser campaign, my interest had been piqued sufficiently enough to venture to the cinema on a Sunday afternoon and watch a PG certificate film in the company of small children and their fussing guardians. So with ticket and snack in hand, I took my seat with hope that the film would be enjoyable enough to make up for the inevitable annoyances that accompany a screen full of under tens.
The Boxtrolls tells the story of a an orphaned boy who is saved and adopted by a mysterious but friendly group of trolls who live underground and wear boxes of whose picture or advertisement determines their names. Among the main characters are Fish and Shoe, and the human boy with whom they create an unconventional family is christened Eggs. Below the surface all is well, the Boxtrolls and Eggs live a happy life full of fixing and building mechanical gadgets that help in their day to lives, but above the pavements the attitude towards the Boxtrolls is very different indeed. The local town pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), an unlikable social climber, has brainwashed the townspeople in to believing that the Boxtrolls are vicious, child eating creatures, using the story of Egg’s disappearance to create an annual scare mongering and remembrance event. In order to attain his place in high society, Archibald makes a deal with the town Lord (Jared Harris) to exterminate every single Boxtroll in exchange for a coveted ‘white hat’ and a place in the secretive and distinguished cheese eating club. Meanwhile, Boxtroll numbers are rapidly decreasing and once Egg’s father figure Fish is kidnapped, the film settles into the path of a journey to save his best friend and the rest of his unusual family, meeting human girl Winnie (Elle Fanning) and discovering much about himself on the way.
One striking aspect that The Boxtrolls must be commended for is its willingness to revel in a much more sinister and macabre tone than the majority of children’s films released today. The impressive stop-motion animation is grimy and sometimes grotesque, putting one in mind of some of Tim Burton’s better works like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride. So many animated pictures these days are so concerned with appearing smooth and shiny that they have forgotten that children like a touch of the dark and gruesome and are not so fragile as to be forever scarred by the sight of a cartoonish diseased face or a truly menacing villain. The children in my screening at least were more engrossed in Egg’s journey than scared by the often sinister animation. Whilst the film undoubtedly looks refreshing and interesting, in trying to incorporate too many thematic elements in the narrative The Boxtrolls ends up getting a little lost in itself and messy. Themes of childhood, self discovery, long lost family and more metaphorical aspects of racism, ostracism and finding ones place in society are all touched upon but very few are given enough room to fully develop.
Though The Boxtrolls is certainly better than a number of lesser cartoon films that have come out this year, the main aspect that prevents it from joining the ranks of the truly great animated pictures is its failure to satisfactorily bridge the gap between adult and childhood humour that is achieved so particularly effectively in the Pixar offerings. The majority of the film’s humour is aimed solely at the younger audience, with sequences of little dialogue and heavy use of physical comedy that are accessible to the small children. There is an attempt to reach out to the older viewership in the portrayals and characterisations of Archibald’s two henchman voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, but the characters are played in a much too ‘knowing’ way and the portrayals start to come across as rather smug, with their brand of sarcastic and parodic humour making the film feel somewhat disjointed and distancing the characters from the film’s target audience. As for the cast, all of the performances given are of a pleasing standard with the lead roles being voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning and Jared Harris amongst others. The real stand out performance, though, is undoubtedly Ben Kingsley as Archibald Snatcher who really seems to connect the aesthetic of his character with the voice that he provides, an impressive mixture of menace, intimidation and villainous charm that results in a truly memorable antagonist.
Overall, The Boxtrolls is an enjoyable and refreshingly macabre children’s film that falls just short of the magic combination of juvenile and adult appeal that is needed to produce a truly great animated feature these days. It certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome and is a perfectly enjoyable ride in the moment, but I feel the film is not going to be one that enjoys a heavy rotation in many households across the world, not because it isn’t worth a few repeated goes but simply because there are so many other animated choices whose viewings would be more worth while and rewarding.