Going into this film I was already extremely hyped. I’m a huge fan of Laika productions and their work. For those who don’t know, this was the company that did the Stop Motion for The Corpse Bride. (Burton and Johnson, 2005) They also made such “in house” films as Coraline (Selick, 2004), and ParaNorman (Fell and Butler, 2012). They are a fairly new animation company without a whole lot of work to their resume. But nearly everything they have done so far has been fantastic. To my mind these are some of the best, most talented, stop motion artists working in the industry today. Not that that’s a huge deal considering how small that market is now. The Boxtrolls (Annable and Stacchi, 2014) did nothing to change my opinion of them in that regard.
The animation in this movie took stop motion to a level beyond what I have seen in recent cinema. Only 5 years ago we had Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson, 2009), a stop motion animated film in which smoke was represented with cotton balls and every time the characters moved so did their fur as a result of the animators touch. But in Boxtrolls we had some of the most seamlessly beautiful movement I have ever seen in a stop motion film: the clothes rustled and moved in realistic ways as the characters moved. Minimal CGI took care of the fire and other such things that would have been difficult to do with stop motion.
Not to mention this design team and their particular affinity for what I like to call "beautiful ugliness." They know how to construct a world so intentionally badly that it circles around and becomes brilliant. All of the angles are off, nothing is symmetrical, the people’s proportions are so odd that they become beautiful. This is partially inspired by Tim Burton's use of German Expressionist designs in The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas (Selick 1993). However over the course of Paranorman and this film it seems to be developing into its own style.
The plot of the film is fairly simple and reminiscent of many other films including Laika’s own filmography. The eponymous boxtrolls are skittish creatures that hide inside boxes to avoid confrontation. They live underground and only come up to the surface at night to steal trinkets that they use to make machines. The townspeople believe that they are evil man-eating creatures based mainly on the story of the “Trubbshaw Baby,” a baby who was stolen and seemingly eaten by the boxtrolls some years ago. Little do they know that the baby was actually adopted by the boxtrolls and is now living among them. When the boy (named "Eggs" and voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) comes of age, he decides to go to the surface world to rescue the boxtrolls who were long ago kidnapped by the town’s ambitious, cross-dressing 'Exterminator' and his crew of existentially confused henchmen.
Actually said henchmen are two of my favorite characters. Throughout the film they debate with each other about the nature of good and evil within the context of the narrative and where on that scale they personally fall. Later in the film upon discovering that they are henchmen (minor spoilers) and they request one of the main characters to help them get redemption before the end of the movie. As the credits role they discover that they are stop motion figures and start doing more complicated motions so as to give their animators a harder time of it.
The story in this film was not exactly what I would call strong. The twists were telegraphed very far in advance, and the moral was so standard that the characters themselves commented on it. And that was the saving grace of the film for me. It knew its plot was a little flimsy, and it didn’t care. In fact I would argue they intentionally made it worse again going along with that idea of beautiful ugliness that I mentioned before. And I don’t mean that the movie was “so bad it’s good” or even that it talked down to the audience. I mean that the film seemed to set out to create a very simple story with a simple message, mixed it with some of the best stop motion animation I’ve ever seen, and then threw in some more intelligent jokes to help the adults not get bored. In terms of balancing those elements and not making the film seem disjointed, I would say that this film did a very good job of it.
If you’re looking for a unique visual experience combined with a great sense of humor and a fun story about believing in yourself and not letting your environment tell you who to be, this is a great movie to see. I give it a 7 out of 10.