Laika Studios burst upon the scene (out of the ashes of the old Will Vinton Studios) in 2009 with the brilliant Coraline and a mandate to keep stop-motion animation alive. The studio’s 2012 follow-up, ParaNorman, was not quite as rich and resonant, but still mostly a delight. The shop’s third feature, The Boxtrolls, is different in some ways from the first two films. It’s clear that Laika has tweaked what it’s doing — but are the results a success?
Based on portions of Alan Snow’s children’s book Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls is set in the town of Cheesebridge, where the ruling council — known as the White Hats — sit and indulge in their favorite cheeses while fretting about the problem of the Boxtrolls, hideous creatures that live underground and have a reputation for kidnapping children. Enter Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), a creepy fellow who has a plan to wipe out the monsters — only on the condition that White Hats leader Lord Portly-Rind (Jared Harris) allow him to become a White Hat.
The truth, meanwhile, is utterly different: the Boxtrolls are kind, gentle beings who have actually raised a human boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) as one of their own. As this peaceful community of tinkerers and junk recyclers are threatened by Snatcher and his Red Hats, Eggs must venture into Cheesebridge on his own — and with the help of Portly-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), prove that the Boxtrolls are harmless while discovering where he came from.
On a technical level, The Boxtrolls (directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable) is near flawless. The stop-motion animation is filmed in 3D and the depth and detail of the images is often stunning, although it seem clear that the studio is using more CG to smooth out the animation with every feature it does, making the line between the two thinner (I kind of miss the somewhat cruder stop-motion last employed by Wes Anderson on The Fantastic Mr. Fox, if only because the figures seemed so resolutely physical). The backgrounds, sets and character designs are all intricate and meticulous, but they’re not quite as eerily lovely as those in Coraline or ParaNorman. There’s a lot more of the grotesque in The Boxtrolls and even though there were plenty of monsters in the earlier two films, they were somehow more beautiful.
Nevertheless, it’s the story itself that lets The Boxtrolls down. It’s simply too long and unnecessarily complicated for a film of this type, and seems to be pulling in two directions. Not as genuinely macabre as Coraline or wickedly funny as ParaNorman, the script here seems more deliberately geared toward children while trying to maintain the same adult sophistication that Laika had effortlessly generated before. But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that the movie does not have a strong central protagonist from which the narrative develops. We spend long periods of time with Snatcher, his minions, Eggs, Winnie and finally the Boxtrolls themselves, but they’re all there to serve the story rather than the other way around.
Eggs is a standard and somewhat passive Chosen One, Winnie is an independent little girl (who, continuing an admirable Laika tradition, is perhaps the most three-dimensional creation here), Snatcher is a relentlessly awful villain and Portly-Rind is a typically greedy and ineffectual leader — but with the exception of maybe Winnie, they’re all stock, with little depth beyond what the plot demands. The title creatures, despite the cute idea of wearing boxes like shells and naming themselves after whatever picture is on the box, become indistinguishable from each other. Some of this may have come from building a story just out of one particular aspect of Here Be Monsters! instead of a stronger, character-driven story. As a result, the movie meanders, the themes become heavy-handed and obvious, and after its admittedly charming early world-building, it settles on a frenetic second half and multiple climaxes that just become tiresome.
But you know what? That’s okay. Laika remains an impressive operation and even if The Boxtrolls doesn’t work, the studio still seems to be on a mission to find material that may not necessarily scream out “animated children’s feature” and doing its best to bring that material to the screen, for both children and adults to enjoy, while keeping a century-old cinematic tradition alive. If The Boxtrolls simply represents a stumble, well, the company is only three features old. Hopefully Laika can learn some lessons for the next one.
The Boxtrolls is out in theaters now.