Late one night years ago in the town of Cheesebridge, the unthinkable happened: a Boxtroll kidnapped a baby boy.
Were you a resident of Cheesebridge, you’d have likely heard of the Boxtrolls rather than seen them, with tales of their horrid activities painting more than enough of a vivid picture to fill in for the largely unseen nocturnal exploits of the elusive creatures. Tales of the Boxtrolls’ macabre decorating sense, perpetuated in no small part by local ne’er-do-well Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) (think The Child Catcher but in stop-motion form) involve piles of baby bones and rivers of blood. When a baby boy’s disappearance can be concretely blamed on the Boxtrolls, it’s no wonder that Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) strikes a veritable deal with the devil – provide proof for the elimination of every Boxtroll and Snatcher will be guaranteed a membership into the White Hats, the exclusive elite club that makes all the decisions for the town over meetings involving discussions of the most delectable cheeses.
Snatcher’s Red Hat Exterminators are given free reign for years, depleting the Boxtrolls’ numbers night after night after night with the help of his clumsy henchmen, Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan). It would seem that in no time at all, the monstrous rascals will be fully rounded up never to terrorize Cheesebridge again. But there’s one problem: the campaign of family-friendly genocide hinges on a great big lie, one that, like the most effective lies, was built upon a nugget of truth.
Yes, years ago a Boxtroll did make off with a baby boy, but not for the purposes of eating him. Rather, all these years the boy, dubbed Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) due to the identifier printed on the box he wears, has been raised lovingly and affectionately by the Boxtrolls as though he was one of their own, a father figure having developed in Fish, so called because of the design on the box he wears. Having lived his entire life amongst the underground commune of Boxtrolls, Eggs has inherited all their best features: a curiosity for the world above, a proficiency at inventing anything out of junk and throwaway parts and a fear and skepticism of the humans who are fearful and skeptical of him. It’s only when he meets Winnie (Elle Fanning), Lord Portley-Rind’s neglected daughter, that the lines between what people believe about the Boxtrolls and what’s actually true begin to start breaking down.
With few exceptions, animated films will always be judged on two levels: how it works for us cynical film snobs and how it works for the parents looking for a way to placate their kids on a Saturday afternoon. Having a little bit of experience with the former and absolutely none with the latter, I can confidently say that, as is the case with past Laika titles Coraline and ParaNorman, we’re in safe hands with the filmmakers of The Boxtrolls. As was the case with the aforementioned Oscar nominees, The Boxtrolls is a visual feast, with layers upon layers of articulate craftsmanship that will leave your eyes constantly scanning for and marveling at the fantastic three-dimensional precision. The world of the Boxtrolls, cobbled together from discarded junk and urban flotsam and jetsam, is a messy masterpiece of steampunk inspiration and wonder, the jagged edges and gamut of shapes and sizes all fitting together into beautiful mishmash machinery. Visually, the world of The Boxtrolls is similar enough to give its audience a base of relation, but dissimilar enough to allow its fairytale quality to pervade our imaginations and allow its morality to germinate.
Along with its fantastic visual styling, some of the titles associated with the creative team behind The Boxtrolls consist of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, so you can count on a juvenile yet not immature sense of humor that acts as a buffer between the scarier, macabre elements and the benevolent nature of its story. At times as an adult, it’s easy to overthink how disturbing some of the elements of The Boxtrolls are – Snatcher’s affinity for cheese, for instance, is offset by his horrifying allergic reactions to it – but in order for a fantasy to work, it has to adhere to its fantastical rules. So what if Eggs likes to eat bugs? He does as the Boxtrolls do and kids are smart enough to know that depiction does not breed imitation. We might be disturbed by the fact that Winnie has a latent bloodlust that seems to be brought out by the twisted (false) tales of the Boxtrolls, but what kids take away is that there’s a girl who’s not afraid to play in the mud like they are.
Yet a knock against The Boxtrolls is that its flashiness has to often cover up for the fact that its tale of extraordinariness is rather ordinary. While neither of the messages behind Coraline and ParaNormanwere particularly earth-shattering, their vehicles for delivery were enveloped in paranormal and spooky tales that taught kids that figuratively confronting fear was a method of growth in and amongst itself. The Boxtrolls preaches and teaches enough to make both kids and adults happy – teaching the value of family, the redemptive nature of mankind and the inherent flaws in oligarchy – but does so more in a literal sense with speeches and flashbacks and monologues than it does in a subtle journey through the narrative. Never is the genesis of the fear and hatred of the Boxtrolls explained, nor any explanation given for the gravity given to cheese outside of allegory. This nitpicking is where the cynical film snobs and parents may diverge in their opinions on the film, but certainly not enough where the response will be black from one party and white from the other. In the end, there’s enough found in The Boxtrolls to satisfy anyone who comes to it, likely to collect another Oscar nomination for Laika come next year.