By Greg Popil
If the modern-day animated studios were students in a high school, Disney animation would be the established, universally respected class president, and its cousin Pixar the driven, inventive valedictorian. DreamWorks would be the envious, less talented but hardworking salutatorian, Blue Sky the empty-headed but massively popular captain of the basketball team, and Aardman and Ghibli the exchange students. In recent years, there has been a new addition to the class called LAIKA, quietly sitting in the back like Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club,” creating dark tales full of realistically flawed but brave children battling genuinely horrifying monsters. In both the studio’s breakthrough hit “Coraline” (still my favorite movie of 2009) and their follow up “ParaNorman,” LAIKA has used stop-motion animation to create worlds as creepy as they are beautiful.
The studio’s third major release, “The Boxtrolls,” shows no sign of abandoning this twisted spirit. The film opens like a medieval fairy tale, the kind that would have to be sanded down for kids in subsequent generations: a group of hideous-looking trolls that live in the sewers beneath a quiet English town sneak to the surface and steal a baby boy. The town’s resident exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) assures the town’s leader (“Mad Men’s” Jared Harris) that he will avenge the baby by eliminating every single one of the Boxtrolls…for a price.
The people of the town believe the Boxtrolls to be monsters, but they turn out to be nothing of the sort. The biggest weakness of the film is that this is so unsurprising. In the post “Shrek,” post-“Monsters, Inc.,” post-“Monsters vs. Aliens” (I could go on) world, it’s just not surprising when you make the seemingly scary creatures heroic, and the human into a heel. When we see that the young baby has grown into a boy named Eggs (he, like all the Boxtrolls, is named after the box that he wears) who is well-loved and treated, it’s hardly a shock, nor is it a shock that Mr. Snatcher (the most on-the-nose name for a villainous character since “Muppets Most Wanted” named the villain Badguy) has ulterior motives.
Thankfully, “The Boxtrolls” rolls past this “twist” rather quickly, which allows the viewer to spend more time soaking in the visual and storytelling delights, which are legion. The montage of Eggs and his adopted father Fish growing up together is at once delightful (he plays the saw!) and sad, as we see the race of Boxtrolls slowly shrinking away under Snatcher’s constant sieges. When Eggs decides out of desperation to infiltrate the humans and find the whereabouts of his adopted family, he enlists the help of Harris daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning, sister of “Coraline” star Dakota), a girl with a surprisingly depraved streak (her disappointment that the Boxtrolls are not the flesh-eating ghouls she’s been promised is one of the film’s best running jokes).
One of LAIKA’s finest growing traditions has been in creating wholly original, wholly dangerous villains, the kind that would need only the slightest of tweaks to be featured in an R-rated horror film. Coraline’s confrontations with the Other Mother, or Norman’s with the town’s witch recall the best moments of the ’80s Jim Henson or Don Bluth movies, when those filmmakers trusted kids to have the same courage as their films’ protagonists to face real monsters on the screen. “The Boxtrolls” is the first time the studio has ever gone for a more human villain, and they knock it out of the park. Kingsley is delightfully twisted as Snatcher, a social climber with a trio of lackeys (a pair of philosophical brutes played by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, and a rampaging dwarf played by an unrecognizable Tracy Morgan) and an obsession with gaining one of the town’s “white hats” so he can be invited to their fancy cheese parties. The town’s obsession with cheese, at the expense of the welfare of their own children (or in one hilarious case, their own health), is just one of many Aardman-esque injections of British humor into what had been LAIKA’s quintessentially American sensibilities.
“The Boxtrolls,” like LAIKA’s previous movies, is not a movie for every child, or even every adult. There will always be some who find such dark humor off-putting. But for the right children, it’s the kind of movie that will stick to the brain like glue. “The Boxtrolls” will probably end up making about 10 percent as much money as “Rio 2,” and be 20 times more fondly remembered 30 years from now.