The invaluable gift of animation is the ability to create limitless worlds and breathe life into weirdly shaped characters. It is escapism at its finest and with great stories in tow, the medium has the ability to provoke and create a lasting cultural impact. Laika Studios feels like a revolutionary force because in a world full of CGI landscapes, few are choosing to do anything interesting. The painstaking dedication to stop motion not only means that they will stand out, but that they have to pack a punch on each outing to compensate for long intervals between films. With their latest film, The Boxtrolls, they continue to expand on the potential of animation with one of their most fluid and ambitious films yet. While not entirely as pleasing as their previous output, it reflects a continuing need for animation to be as exciting as it once was.
The Boxtrolls takes place in a hillside environment called Cheesebridge where the higher powers wear white hats and eat cheeses. On the opposite spectrum is the Boxtrolls, who become pariahs that live underground after being accused of killing humans. Among these creatures is Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a human who was adopted and raised as a Boxtroll for inexplicable reasons. After a visit to the surface world, Eggs befriends Winnie (Elle Fanning) and they slowly discover that the cultural taboos are a lie spread by the manipulative Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who only wishes to join the upper ranks of society. From there the film explores the social classes and that appearances can be deceiving.
The film's biggest success lies in the animation technique. While the Boxtrolls character designs are varying shapes and sizes, they all manage to have a delightful quality reminiscent of Despicable Me's Minions. While they speak an indecipherable language, their physicality matched with their eccentric hobbies create some of the most bizarre and fun animation of the year. In a film full of bleak prospects, the Boxtrolls are eternal optimists that were misunderstood. Along with intricate background details, this universe feels fully realized and the details are inspiring. The only complaints that could be lodged at the film is that it is too grotesque at times as it explores physical impairments and features one of the most threatening third acts in an animated film in quite some time. Still, in the midst of all this, there's plenty of whimsical humor that plays almost like Laika bragging about their craft.
The film manages to explore social class systems in creative ways. With the Boxtrolls being lower class cogs in the system, the white hats indicate wealth and Snatcher is the middle class eager to break into the upper echelon. Even if the plot is very simple, the approach to showing how manipulation and appearances can be used to influence hatred, the film plays out in its Parisian setting almost like a bleak Victor Hugo novel. It isn't meant to destroy class systems, but reflects their ridiculous nature while also being a story that, as the Loch Lomond over the credit states, is about nuclear families and other progressive themes. What separates Laika's approach of these themes than Pixar or Dreamworks Animation is that they don't feel preachy. They coexist with the plot and are rarely discussed outside of subtle tone cues.
Set alongside a score by the reliable Dario Marianelli (Atonement, Anna Karenina), the film embraces its Parisian nature perfectly. It may feel rough around the edges, but it also manages to capture something more raw and honest about kid's films. They need to have flaws and feel imperfect. While this is made annoying clear by Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), who exists as a meta commentary on film structure and archetypes, it does so in rather predictable manners. Besides the impressive animation, the themes explored are at times too reminiscent of Laika's other films and takes away some of the impact. Nonetheless, it is still an amazingly solid, fluid film that challenges audiences and leaves a sense of where animation can go.
The Boxtrolls may not be the greatest stop motion animation film, but it's not from lack of trying. Even for those that will find faults in the character design or grotesque moments will have trouble not recognizing its craft. Even in a very limiting format, there's a lot of physical humor and enjoyment to get out of watching the film. The way that the characters move even has a personality that is missing from CGI film. It feels more organic and like the film itself, feels like an outcast in need of proving themselves. Once again, Laika succeeds at doing just that while proving that family films can have peril and excitement while still having the familiar morals and triumphs that come with the territory.
In all honesty, I admire the film more than like it. The Boxtrolls definitely has all of the correct appeal to make me like it. However, when compared to ParaNorman, it does feel like a sloppier film that is more about pushing boundaries than telling a great story. This isn't a problem with the title creatures are so much fun to be around. Even then, the character designs are a little more off putting on purpose this time, and while that's intentional, makes it a little hard to enjoy. I like that Laika Studios continues to try new things and the scenery is very impressive with awe inspiring action beats to boot. Still, it feels almost too kiddie material for the first half of the film. This isn't a bad thing, but it doesn't help to make a consistent tone. Still, this is a film that I will likely appreciate with age when I get enough films to properly do a Laika marathon.
In truth, I don't see the film winning Best Animated Film. Whereas I rooted for ParaNorman before, I can see where many would be turned off by this. In fact, I admire it as a gamble of bizarre-looking characters in a realm of cleanly polished competitors. Even then, it is only second favorite for 2014 to How to Train Your Dragon 2, which at least showed how CGI animation can work when actually putting in effort. Still, the money is on The LEGO Movie to win for inexplicable reasons. Nonetheless, I see The Boxtrolls being nominated simply because it's stop motion and has enough authentic charm to make it work.
Will The Boxtrolls succeed at the box office? Is Laika Studios ever going to win Best Animated Film? What is the future of stop motion animation and can it compete with CGI films?