The Boxtrolls (2014)
The stop-motion studio Laika has been one of the most peculiar and interesting things to come along in the world of animation in recent years. First, they made the surprise hit Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name, which was highly acclaimed and praised for its unique style of storytelling. It was indeed the perfect strange fairy tale, with fantastic visuals and an atmosphere that was entirely its own.
Next up from Laika was ParaNorman, based on a completely original story. Although it wasn’t as big of a hit as Coraline, it was still an achievement, and if you ask this humble reviewer, ParaNorman is also the better movie, bringing an interesting new twist to old ideas and clichés, and having an overall eerie feeling which turns the film into a bizarre experience with a huge payoff at the end. I urge any fan of animation, fantasy, fairy tales, or just plain old horror tales to check it out.
And now comes Laika’s third movie Boxtrolls, and their second based on a novel. The story takes place in the Victorian-era city of Cheesebridge, which is led by very prim and proper old men easily recognized by their white hats, who take great pride in their annual cheese-tasting ball. They have a problem, however: no one dares to go out at night, because that’s when the Boxtrolls come out to pillage and plunder Cheesebridge, stealing everything in sight, including innocent tiny babies which they then devour. Or at least, that’s what everyone believes.
Naturally, one of the first things established in this movie is that the common beliefs about the Boxtrolls are entirely wrong. They may be scavengers, and they may come out at night to steal objects they use to build their underground city, but the truth is they’re lovable creatures who are in fact extremely afraid of humans, so much so that they all wear old cardboard boxes that they can quickly hide inside.
Unfortunately for them, there are Boxtroll exterminators in town, who specialize in hunting them down one by one. The main exterminator is the delightfully disgusting Archibald Snatcher.
Our main character is a boy named “Eggs”, who was orphaned as a baby, with everyone assuming the Boxtrolls had stolen him away to eat him. But in reality, they took him in and raised him as one of their own. And now, ten-year-old Eggs believes he’s one of the Boxtrolls, and even wears a box of his own.
However, his world gets turned upside down as his parental figure, a Boxtroll named Fish, gets captured by the exterminators, and it’s now up to Eggs to resurface among the humans, discover his own origins, find a way to save the Boxtrolls, and expose the secrets the city holds.
Like the two previous Laika movies, this movie excels in building a bizarre world that feels complete and entirely its own. The designs are crookedly bizarre, detailed, and an utter joy to look at. Many things in the movie feel purposely askew, and some images are eerie and disturbing; In particular, the villain Archibald is a ball of sheer disgust upon his first introduction, and he just gets worse as the movie goes on. They don’t hold back here, and his demise might be one of the most horrible villain comeuppances I’ve ever witnessed in a movie.
Laika movies are indeed weird, but weirdness is something they’re masters of. And it’s a delightful kind of weird that indulges itself and immerses us completely in a different universe, making the movie feel timeless and something that ought to be recognized as an instant classic.
Many of the themes about perception and fear feel very reminiscent of ParaNorman, though this movie goes in another direction, with questions of identity, and finding out who or what determines who you are. The movie’s opinion of who the “real monsters” are is obvious, as we see the cute, funny little Boxtrolls being hunted down, and a human being who’s obsessed about becoming one of the white-hatted gentlemen while being completely disgusting, but the film never becomes too preachy about it.
All in all, Boxtrolls is an enjoyable ride, filled with bizarre small twists and visual queues. This is not your average animated movie that you can just sit the kids in front of so they can be quiet for a while. It’s the kind of movie we don’t get too often these days, and thus I highly recommend watching it and savoring it, if for nothing else than to support the continued existence of Laika, and so we can find out what bizarre ideas they’ll come up with next.
[—Editing/cleanup/revisions to this article provided by Dr. Winston O’Boogie and Elliot Hodgett.]