Release Date: 12th of September 2014
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Directors: Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi
Starring: Sir Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayaode, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning
With their films ParaNorman and Coraline, stop-motion animation studio Laika has specialised in making horror-inflected movies for kids. Like the work of authors such as Roald Dahl and directors Joe Dante and Henry Selick (a key creative figure in Laika’s early days) they are dark and creepy without becoming genuinely upsetting; a tightrope act that most kid-friendly films can’t be bothered even trying anymore. While on the surface The Boxtrolls appears to be a more mainstream proposition, it happily sits comfortably alongside their previous films. Let’s be grateful for Laika then, a studio that understands kids sometimes like scary stuff and set about making films to scare them.
There’s something monstrous afoot in the small town of Cheesebridge. Every night, as the city elders sit high in their ivory towers eating cheese, the townsfolk bolt their doors and cower in the dark, while exterminators prowl the streets looking for vicious creatures known as boxtrolls. However in actuality the boxtrolls are gentle, shy creatures who have raised a young orphan as one of their own and the chief exterminator who hunts them is a status-obsessed bully and thug. As his foster family are slowly whittled down by Archibald Snatcher and his team of hunters, ten year old boy Eggs must rally the boxtrolls to defend themselves and figure out exactly what Snatcher has planned.
With a wealth of cheese puns and a largely British cast channelling Monty Python and old Hammer horror films, there’s something strangely parochial about The Boxtrolls. Infused with a heavily stylised look that owes a debt to German Expressionism and Tim Burton, the world of The Boxtrolls is a sinister, gothic treat, with a steampunk style mish-mash of history and sci-fi. The surface world of Cheesebridge, wreathed in fog and smoke, is a teetering collection of houses that build up the side of an impossibly steep hill; the caverns below where the boxtrolls live are a treasure trove of salvaged junk and Rube Goldberg contraptions. The character design is equally eccentric; angular, spindly men with crooked teeth, exaggerated features and a sickly pallor are the order of the day. Ben Kingsley’s corpulent and wonderfully evil chief exterminator Archibald Snatcher looks like Fagin interpreted by Aardman, while Jared Harris’ aristocrat looks like a sickly King Arthur. Each frame is packed with intricacy and detail that gives the world a lived-in feel and makes the whole thing a joy to look at.
It’s not just in its design that The Boxtrolls excels though; there are several imaginatively executed and fun set-pieces as well. An escape across the rooftops of Cheesebridge that brings to mind a key sequence in Spielberg’s Tintin and a comical chase through a ballroom of waltzing aristocrats are particular highlights, but there’s also some amusingly disgusting moments when the boxtrolls eat bugs and the humans gorge on cheese. It’s a kids film that doesn’t look down on or pander to its audience and its blend of the grotesque and the heartfelt is exquisitely managed.
Following on from the triumphs of Coraline and ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls shows that Laika are an animation studio on a roll. They may not have yet hit the peaks of Pixar at their most moving, but on this evidence it can’t be too far off.