LAIKA is a studio that gets richly-deserved attention for its continued embrace of stop motion animation techniques in big movies. But as The Boxtrolls proves, it deserves credit for something else too: for steadfastly refusing to knock the edges of its films to pander to a family audience.
Thus, The Boxtrolls adopts a tone that doesn’t land too far away from LAIKA’s previous pictures, Coraline and ParaNorman. Based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters! (although distilling just a small part of it), the film takes place in the land of Cheesebridge, a macabre looking place with the kind of imposing, shadowy buildings that stop motion seems to get across so wonderfully. It’s a place of two worlds, though. Above ground, there are the ruling white hats, who get to enjoy the best cheese, and take part in elusive tasting sessions. Chief white hat is Lord Portley-Rind, a man who barely notices his daughter, Winnie.
Below ground? That’s where the Boxtrolls themselves live, a collection of impoverished critters who live in the sewers, and only climb out to get what they need to survive.
You can already start to draw together some of the points the film is trying to make by notion of the fact that the rich White Hats demonise the poor (in more than one sense) Boxtrolls, and declare them the evil, leeching outcasts. Enter the frankly terrifying Red Hat, Archibald Snatcher, who brokers a deal that he can become a White Hat if he exterminates the rest of the Boxtrolls.
Archibald is a sinister creation, up there with the particularly unsettling dragons we meet towards the end of How To Train Your Dragon 2 in that regard, although LAIKA does not hold back in distorting his aesthetics to get under your skin. In a film bursting with wonderful character animation – and the Boxtrolls themselves are more than a match for Despicable Me’s minions – he’s the most wonderfully grotesque creation of the lot.
Backed by a strong score from Dario Marianelli, it’s inevitably the wonderful visual look of The Boxtrolls that sticks in the mind both before and after. Directorial team Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi seem determined not to be constrained by the barriers stop motion could potentially throw up, and there’s no sign that they are. They construct some strong sequences, with a lot of cheese, and it’s wonderful fun just to explore the world they realise. Furthermore, their voice casting is exquisite. Ben Kingsley’s tones give Archibald Snatcher a real sense of menace, and the pairing of Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost as a pair of henchman is a real treat.
There is a problem with the film, though, and that’s that the narrative itself just isn’t that memorable. In digging so precisely into the source material, LAIKA has found the story it wants to tell, but it’s really quite straightforward. Tellingly, an hour after the credits have rolled, it’s the look and feel of the film that resonates more than the contents of the adventure itself.
It’s admittedly a harsh criticism: ambition permeates much of what’s put on screen, and there’s a sequence in the middle of the end credits that’s a flat-out delight. Anyone who cares about stop motion in the slightest can’t fail to get something out of it. Furthermore, it’s not that the story itself is a bad one. In fact, it ably holds the film together.
What just about gets the movie over the four star line – and it’s a tight call – is that not once do you get close to tiring of looking at it. The Boxtrolls themselves are delightful, if slightly underused characters (although that may be one of the reasons their appeal still holds), whilst the craft on display is just staggering at times. There’s more than enough here to justify a family ticket out, and at the screening we attended, our pint-sized companions were getting just as much out of the film as we were.
It’s not LAIKA’s best – Coraline still proudly wears that crown – but The Boxtrolls, for all its faults, feels just a little bit special. And in a year when few family films (LEGO aside) can claim that, LAIKA most certainly deserves your support.
The Boxtrolls is out in UK cinemas on the 12th September.
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