The Boxtrolls tells the story of a young boy who grows up with the titular cardboard-bound monsters, and how he has to save them from a band of troll-catchers who have convinced the town that the harmless creatures are, in fact, evil. But it’s also about a city obsessed with cheese, a class system based on hats and a girl who is obsessed with death and violence. It’s gross, silly, sharply satirical and is actually for children. It must be a Laika film.
Laika, the animation studio behind under-appreciated marvels Coraline and ParaNorman, are exceptionally hard workers. Animation is a time consuming process that requires a near miraculous attention to detail, but stop motion animation, the process of taking 24 photos of precisely positioned models for every second of film, is a doubly difficult discipline. Every minute of footage you see contains 1,440 photos, so The Boxtrolls, their latest film which runs at 100 minutes, is 144,000 photos long, each one moved ever so slightly to create the illusion of life. Any stop motion film even existing is reason, therefore, for celebration. Laika go the extra mile by making each of their films immensely imaginative and distinctively theirs, making each new release something to be greatly anticipated. Yet there is a sense with The Boxtrolls that the animators are fed up of going unnoticed – some early promotional material focussed on how much work they put in, while a hilarious mid-credits sting shows the animators at work. They want people to see what they do, that they are hard workers.
The animators have nothing to fear; as long as there are critics with an eye for good animation out there, the skill and ingenuity of The Boxtrolls will be championed in every column inch around the country. Once again, Laika impresses on two levels with their standard of animation. Firstly, on a technical level, they achieve a fluidity of motion that leaves behind the juddery days of something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Characters slide, fly and run around the screen and it is impossible to see the process behind it – perhaps another reason for the animators wanting to make themselves noticed. The trolls themselves are the best thing about the film, all green and grey and warty but instantly loveable thanks to superb character design and the neat trick of naming them after what their box previously contained. Without speaking any English, the trolls become immediately recognisable and sort of iconic thanks to the skill of the people making them move.
Yet The Boxtrolls is also remarkable for the fact that the film has a distinctive, grotesque aesthetic that sets it apart from the rest of American animation that can, occasionally, veer towards the visually homogeneous. If the big new studios of the US are schoolkids, Pixar is the handsome, loved-by-all prom king, Dreamworks is the class clown who tries a little too hard to be as loved as the prom king, Blue Sky is the tag-along in the jock crowd and Laika is the weird kid in the corner whose notebook is covered with macabre doodles, who wears black even in summer and who won’t even go to prom because he’d rather stay home and watch horror films. The Boxtrolls is an ugly, different film, but brilliantly so. Nothing is quite the shape it should be, with roads twisting and turning round architecturally dubious houses populated by bulbous and bony people. Laika’s films have more in common with Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Trnka than any of its American contemporaries. They are gradually carving out their own gnarled niche in the market, and it’s constantly refreshing to see.
Another apparent influence is Charles Dickens, both in the visuals but also in the astute social satire. The great Victorian novelist, who was obviously writing before cinema existed, had a flair for using the imagery of architecture and people to reflect something of their personality. Coketown, a fictional Manchester-alike city in Hard Times, has “chimneys that were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it,” a description that could equally apply to the thoroughly Dickensian Cheesebridge of The Boxtrolls. Its people, too, are straight out of one of his satires, with inhuman shapes used as shorthand for class status or narrative role, and names such as Archibald Snatcher and Lord Portley-Rind are not a far cry from Josiah Bounderby. All of this serves a purpose for the film, in that (as with ParaNorman), the writers and directors are interested in making a point as well as telling a story. This is a society where the elites are demarcated by the colour of their hat and the quality of their cheese, and where the city’s rulers will spend money on a giant wheel of brie instead of a children’s hospital. It’s exaggerated and absurd, but surprisingly pointed in its absurdity. Dickens would certainly approve.
What The Boxtrolls has also inherited from the writer of Hard Times, however, is a broadness that comes at the cost of pace and purpose. Just as Dickens had multiple targets that he skewered over hundreds of pages, so too do directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi attempt to cover a lot of issues over a much shorter running time. Class systems, self-actualisation, persecution of difference, good and evil, fatherhood and learning to stand up for yourself are all themes that are covered by the plot, and some of them land with more impact than others. A subplot involving the villain – voiced by Ben Kingsley in a manner so over the top and hammy that it ultimately lessens his impact – and his allergy to cheese but his insistence on eating it, just doesn’t work and slows the film down to a halt. Although it does culminate in a surprising and hilarious climax, it also drags out the finale for a scene too long. By trying to cram in so many ideas, The Boxtrolls misses out on the emotional power of ParaNorman, which conveyed its message far more efficiently.
Ultimately while the pacing and lack of focus of The Boxtrolls stop it just short of greatness, it is, still, a Laika film and it contains all the hallmarks of what makes that such a special thing. The animation is incredible, the humour hits the mark and it is full of ideas and invention. Not everything works, but this is still an impressive, ambitious and unique film and, as such, it deserves to be cherished.