If there’s any doubt that stop-motion studio Laika is responsible for the most gorgeous animated features going around over the last few years, there shouldn’t be. Should you still need proof after movies like ParaNorman and Coraline, look no further than their latest, The Boxtrolls, now out on DVD, Blu-ray, and however else you like to watch movies these days.
ParaNorman was one of the best movies of 2012, a smart, sweet dissection of bullying and troubling groupthink that carried way more weight than most more explicit “message” movies. As such, comparing The Boxtrolls to their last outing may not be entirely fair, but it’s bound to happen. And unfortunately their latest doesn’t quite measure up. Don’t get me wrong, The Boxtrolls is delightful, stunning to look at, and adorable as all hell, but while it ranks among the best animated movies of 2014—it did garner an Academy Award nomination—and should satisfy you in most regards, there’s simply just not as much too it as earlier Laika movies.
Based on Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, the story follows a young orphaned boy (Game of Thrones star Isaac Hempstead Wright) who was raised by an underground cadre of trash-collecting Boxtrolls. Named Egg because he wears what used to be a box of eggs (there are trolls named Fish, Bucket, Shoe, and others for the same reason), the townsfolk think the boy was abducted as an infant and that the Boxtrolls are heinous, baby-eating monsters. Nothing could be further from the truth, as they are sweet, affectionate creatures. But when the villagers employ nefarious exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley), to rid them of this perceived menace, it’s time for Eggs to come to the surface and make his presence known.
At it’s core, The Boxtrolls is a story about misunderstanding, being closed minded, not rushing to judgment, and intolerance. It touches on the nature of identity—Eggs doesn’t know where he truly belongs—the inefficiency of overly bureaucratic systems, and even class and rampant, unchecked ambition. And of course the real monsters turn out not to be the obvious choice. Many of these are similar themes as ParaNorman, but the film simply doesn’t hit its mark as true as its predecessor.
This film works best as a fish-out-of-water story as Eggs tries to navigate the strange world of humans and their strange social customs. He has Winnie Portly-Rind (Elle Fanning), the daughter of a local town magistrate, to guide him along, and the movie is full of charming moments like when she tries to teach her pupil what a handshake is.
There is more to the story than just the surface story, as Snatcher has more sinister aims than he initially lets on. You get harrowing situations and more than enough adventure to carry you through. This is the kind of movie that I would have appreciated as a kid, the kind where the adults and authority figures are either corrupt or completely useless, and it falls to the young characters to take care of business and save the day themselves.
As usual, a great cast lends their vocal talents to the proceedings. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toni Collette, Richard, Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, and many more all show up in various capacities. However, where The Boxtrolls really stands out from the pack, as you might expect, is in the visual realm. Again, Laika’s character design is second to none, and there’s such a texture and warmth to this medium that provides a level of connection and affection that you too rarely find in animated movies.
The Boxtrolls is very good, and there’s a distinct possibility it will walk away with an Oscar in a few weeks (especially due to the glaring omission of The Lego Movie, which, aside from the Selma debacle is the most egregious snub this year). Still, it never quite fully connects and you can’t help but think of this as something of a missed opportunity given the sky-high potential. It’s cute and fun, but never goes much beyond that. You don’t necessarily need more out of a movie, but you have to wonder what could have been.
If the movie itself isn’t enough to entice you to pick up a copy of The Boxtrolls, the home video release from Universal arrives with a ton of wildly varied extras. First off, the transfer on the Blu-ray looks fantastic and really does the animation justice. The disc also comes with “Dare to be Square,” a behind the scenes featurette that gives you a clearer picture of the process involved in this kind of painstaking, stop-motion picture. Five more features explore different aspects of the film and provide a broader understanding of the film as a whole. And of course, a feature lengths commentary from directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi is full of stories and insight that you won’t find anywhere else. [Grade: B]