The Boxtrolls (2014)
Dirs: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
Academy Award Nomination: Best Animated Feature.
I Laika a lot!
Taken as a baby, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Bran Stark in ‘Game of Thrones’) is a young boy living underground and raised as one of them by Boxtrolls who are small trolls that wear boxes. The town above them, Cheesebridge, believes them to be evil creatures who will eat children, and so have enlisted the services of ‘Boxtroll Exterminator’ Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) and his ‘stooges’ (Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan) to rid the town of them. When his closest Boxtroll companion Fish is captured, Eggs must venture into the strange human world above to save him, making a new friend in the odd upper-class girl Winnie (Elle Fanning, ‘Maleficent‘) and discovering his true origins.
The story works with Laika’s style so perfectly, adapted from books by Alan Snow, it’s so well-suited to the way that Laika don’t shy away from oddity, weirdness or gruesomeness, and this has plenty of all that yet still maintains an overall warmth and charm that makes it really endearing and uplifting. Key to this is the setting, it’s such an odd town that looks a little like Mont Saint-Michel in France, where the town leaders especially Lord Portley-Rind (voiced quite recognizably by Jared Harris, ‘Mad Men’) worry more about their cheese than their children. There’s also a slight macabre twist, represented well in the character of Winifred who while being a nobleman’s daughter clearly loves the macabre, as do many children who seem to adore gruesome things.
Featuring themes of childhood, friendship and family that have appeared in the studio’s previous film ‘Coraline’, the point is quickly made clear that the Boxtrolls are Eggs’ family, and their underground world is nicer than what’s above with warmer colours and clearly more welcoming. The Boxtrolls are a little like wombles, using odd bits and pieces to create wonderful things. The boxes they wear are more than just an item of clothing, they help to identify them with names like Shoe, Wheels, and most importantly Fish and Eggs. There’s a really charming relationship between these two, more like a father and son as Fish was the main one raising Eggs, beautifully shown through the way they have bonded over a shared love for music. There’s very little dialogue with the Boxtrolls, they make strange sounds a lot like Gollum, and Eggs has to interpret this when it’s important what they’re saying, the rest of the time the odd similar-sounding word or just their inflection has to convey all we need to know.
The voice cast are excellent, Sir Ben Kingsley as Snatcher doesn’t sound much like himself, nor do some of the other leads, they’re clearly enjoying the freedom that animation allows for them to try out a new voice and they all suit their characters well. Snatcher’s henchmen are a strange trio, one comes across as almost demented, voiced by Tracy Morgan he doesn’t say much and just has a habit of repeating a single word or phrase after someone else. Morgan puts on a great sinister demented henchman sort of voice that suits the appearance and personality of this strange-looking character well. The two others, voiced by Richard Ayoade (also director of films such as ‘Submarine‘) and Nick Frost (‘Kinky Boots‘, ‘The World’s End‘) talk a lot more, discussing the meanings of words and the reality of their situation as to if they are really the good guys or not. The Boxtrolls have also been made out to be opposite of what they are, the townspeople have been mislead about the trolls as have the henchmen, and initially the audience too. I like where this deception leads the story, with some twists and reveals that work really well so that what we thought in the very beginning of the film is completely different to the end.
The end credits are lovely, partly as there’s a rendition of ‘Little Boxes’, but the best part is an inspired sequence in which you can see a ghostly animator manipulating the figures as Richard Ayoade’s character talks in a very post-modernist way about the animation process and how long it takes. It’s that painstaking method of animation that as good as guaranteed this an Oscar nomination as the animation division of the Academy really appreciates this method and well-knows the work involved. You can really see why they do, this film with Laika’s handiwork is distinctive, and wonderfully different from the other nominees in this years Oscar race. They offer something that may not appeal to everyone, but for those who like something a little quirkier from their animations, they provide that in abundance.