"I regret so much."
Portland-based stop-motion animation house LAIKA truly has no equal in the animation world at the moment. They're not unlike Pixar was 20 years ago, taking big risks and praying they'd reap the rewards that followed from such daring choices. Sadly their films have not been the box office behemoths that virtually every other animation house in the world has produced. Rather than bend their sensibilities to more commercial prospects, however, they continue to create daring, challenging, beautifully crafted works of art that the general public will eventually catch up to in the long run.
And so it is with their latest effort, The Boxtrolls, based on Alan Snow's book Here Be Monsters, and it is their boldest work to date. With a grotesque beauty, the film tells a wholly original tale of family and personal growth that finds time to pay homage to everything from The Wizard of Oz to Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Set in the fictional burg of Cheesebridge, which seems to reside in Victorian-era England, The Boxtrolls tells the story of Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a young boy snatched from his home as an infant by a group of mischievous trolls that reside in boxes. The town is lorded over by a white hat wearing aristocracy, led by the oblivious to everything but cheese Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris, sounding more like his father than ever). When an ambitious exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (a delightful Ben Kingsley) discovers that the boy has been taken, he makes a deal with Portley-Rind wherein he'll be invited to become a member of the aristocracy if he tracks down and eliminates all of the boxtrolls.
The boxtrolls are not what they seem to be, at least not in the narrative being fed to the town by Snatcher. As Eggs grows, he soon discovers the truth behind how he came to live with them, and Snatcher's plan to use these resourceful trolls for his own means. Now in his teens, Eggs teams up with Portley-Rind's daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) to expose Snatcher and get his family back, but will Winnie's clueless father and the bloodthirsty townsfolk believe their version of events?
As mentioned earlier, The Boxtrolls is a gloriously grotesque film which revels in dirt, grime, and all manner of disgusting behavior. It should come as no surprise that a film set in the Victorian era refuses to shy away from the class struggles and squalid living conditions of the day, but to find such notions in a family film is every bit as revolutionary as it sounds. That the film is not sanitized for a generation of children raised on squeaky clean story lines, settings, and characters is bold enough in its own right, but to seamlessly weave social commentary into the film is nothing short of a miracle in this day and age. What LAIKA does that no other studio does is create a world in which danger to children is a very real thing, and they are forced to combat the ignorance of the adults that populate their stories.
This is what Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and other titans of 20th century children's literature understood so implicitly about children. They want stories they can relate to, presented as fantasies they can cherish. I love Disney, Pixar, Ghibli, and about half of what Dreamworks does, but they give children what they want rather than what they need far too often (though Ghibli does have a better batting average than the others mentioned). Children lose themselves in worlds where they can relate the characters, but where the situations are only a half-step removed from things they may be dealing with in their own lives, like sense of self and standing up for what you believe in, and LAIKA does this with such consistency it's astonishing.
The Boxtrolls looks marvelous, and is a triumph of the form in every sense of the word. It's messy, fantastical, funny, and all of the things that a child would likely come up with on their own. From a design standpoint, it's a brilliantly realized world that feels not just lived in, but rather neglected and disrespected. It feels at times like watching children play with their toys in a messy room, and never fails to be simultaneously whimsical and authentic. The boxtrolls themselves are also a complete success from design to character, flitting about tinkering with things, making strange music, and truly working together for a greater good. The sight gags, including a recurring bit with a one-man band, are also fantastic, with enough humor aimed squarely at the adults in the audience to make it satisfying to every member of the family.
The voice work is also exceptional, with Ben Kingsley turning in one of his best performances in a career full of great ones. He delights in playing a villain, and when coupled with the garish design of his character, makes for one of the best antagonists in a long time. His trio of henchmen voiced by Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and Tracy Morgan are also hilarious, as is Simon Pegg in the role of a fairly pivotal character. It's a sharp script, with plenty of satire and appropriately low-brow humor that never feels pandering or lazy.
The Boxtrolls is perfect family entertainment. It will appeal to moms and dads, but most importantly, it will connect with kids in a way that so much of the disposable nonsense marketed to them could never hope to. Three films into their history, I feel comfortable calling LAIKA the most imaginative animation studio in existence, and I simply cannot wait to see what they do next. These films have an awful lot of heart, and they wear them brazenly on their sleeves. It's rare in this day and age that an animated film can succeed so completely, due to the large number of factors at play in their creation, but The Boxtrolls is another triumph, and everyone--even those without children--should see it as soon as they are able.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]