The Boxtrolls is essentially the antidote to the modern animated movie. A dark and Dickensian fable that explores kid-friendly topics like class stratification and the generational perpetuation of prejudices, the latest marvel from the stop-motion studio Laika plays out like a hostile rejoinder to the codling and complacent films being churned out by their contemporaries. The themes are bleak and unsparing, the designs are gnarly and twisted, and the film’s title characters are ugly little creatures who live in the sewers. The whole movie looks like it smells bad, from the stinky cheeses at the center of its plot to the boxtrolls themselves, whose individual names are derived from the logos on the cardboard squares that the seasick green monsters wears as permanent shells (the most endearing among them are “Fish” and “Shoe”).
The Boxtrolls is like a Pixar movie having a nightmare. And, aside from a certain upcoming Studio Ghibli film, it’s the best, most delightful animated film of the year.
Directed by animation vets Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, and adapted from Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls is set in the city of Cheesebridge, located in the steampunk Britain of a parallel universe around the dawn of the 20th century. Living high above the cobbled streets at the top of the sociopolitical hierarchy are the White Hats, a club of aristocratic old money lords who meet for exclusive sessions of hardcore cheese-tasting. Below them is a tortured middle class. Desperate to bust through the glass ceiling and join the elite, they’re represented by the ambitious, Fagin-esque Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). Accompanied by his merry band of henchmen (Tracy Morgan, Nick Frost, and Richard Ayoade), Snatcher has convinced Lord Portley-Rind, the leader of the White Hats, that the boxtrolls are a menace and need to be exterminated. Naturally, Snatcher volunteered for the job himself, promising to eliminate the bottom feeders in exchange for being inducted into the snooty group of cheese eaters.
But, in a fish-out-of-water twist straight from the Roald Dahl playbook, a wrench is thrown into Snatcher’s plan when the boxtrolls accidentally come into custody of a human baby. Stuffing the kid into a loose-fitting cardboard box, Shoe, Fish, and the rest of the subterranean gang raise Eggs as one of their own, watching over the boy as he grows into a kind (if unusual) tween voiced by Game of Thrones actor Isaac Hempstead-Wright. It’s all live and let live until Portley-Rind’s young daughter Winnifred (Elle Fanning, rocking the most British accent of anyone in the cast), follows Eggs into the sewers one day, sparking a bout of class warfare that will challenge the nature of families and send Cheesebridge topsy-turvy.
Laika’s third feature film after Coraline and Paranorman, The Boxtrolls is a natural extension of the studio’s approach to storytelling, and not just because it continues their auteuristic trend of making morbid movies about young people who are co-opted into vaguely supernatural surrogate families. Like both of Laika’s previous films, The Boxtrolls is a throwback to a time when animated films weren’t afraid to engage with kids’ fears and shake their little worlds. And like both of Laika’s previous films, The Boxtrolls is a funny and fiercely progressive story that encourages kids to think critically and see the world for its potential.
Eggs may not be a particularly engaging hero, but he’s surrounded by one of the most enjoyable rabble of characters in any animated movie this side of Ratatouille. The boxtrolls themselves are a fun chorus, and the fact that they’re not oppressively cute works to make them more pitiable, and their relationship with Eggs that much sweeter. Snatcher is a gloriously vile and tragic villain, lusting after the most banal status symbol in the world because he’s been mislead as to what might make for a better life. He genuinely believes that he’s owed something, and it’s riveting to watch him start believing his own propaganda. His character also has a secret side, a hilarious underbelly that taps into issues of sexual representation to laugh at how blinding cultural divides can be. Oh, and he’s also virulently lactose intolerant, putting a brave face on an underrepresented group. But it’s his flunkies who deliver the biggest laughs, especially Ayoade’s character, who’s caught in an existential funk as it begins to dawn on him that he might be one of the bad guys.
The tale has a bit of an ungainly structure, which is a bit unusual for a filmmaking mode that requires such intense precision, but the cobbled together feel perfectly suits the vibe of the film. From the ground up (and down), The Boxtrolls is immaculately crafted to feel salvaged from spare parts, and the 3D makes it that much easier to locate the characters in a tangible reality. Really, the 3D is fantastic, empowering stop-motion filmmakers to capture the full scale of their sets (which is super frustrating, given how 3D is usually so evil).
In the wake of The Lego Movie, which proved how well CG can broadly duplicate the herky-jerky gait of stop-motion, it’s tempting to think that Laika is tilting at windmills. But anyone who devotes two years of their life to adjusting the position of a doll 24 times per second probably has a few screws loose. The Boxtrolls confirms that stop-motion still has a bright future as a conduit for such wonderful madness. As the boxtrolls’ story suggests, just because something’s thrown away doesn’t mean it’s left behind.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.