Saturday Morning Cartoons – Laika Wows me Again with its Animation in “The Boxtrolls” (2014)

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The Boxtrolls is a quirky stop-motion animated film by Laika, the creators of other Academy Award nominated films, Coraline and ParaNorman. While not as great as its other two films, The Boxtrolls is still a fun adventure with well written protagonists, entertaining antagonists, and a rather unique premise. The story goes that 10 years ago, in the strange town of Cheesebridge, where the consumption of cheese and the color of one’s hat determines class and rank, a baby was stolen away. The supposed culprits were odd little creatures known as Boxtrolls, who, as their name suggests, are troll-like creatures that wear boxes. They also supposedly eat cheese and children. Or at least that’s the story our main villain, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), wants you to believe. The true story is that Snatcher, along with his red-hat-wearing comrades, wants to kill all of the boxtrolls in order to earn a white hat, the most prestigious of hats, from the town mayor, and be able to consume only the finest cheeses. But what happened to the missing baby? It turns out that he really was taken by the boxtrolls. But instead of being eaten, he was raised by them. “Eggs” (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) as he was to be called, due to the label on the box he wears, thus becomes a part of the boxtroll society. Unfortunately over the years the boxtroll community shrinks and shrinks as the red hats take away more of them. Eggs eventually gets tired of hiding and running away after his adoptive boxtroll parent, Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), is stolen away by Snatcher. He goes to the surface world where he meets the mayor’s daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning), who has an interest in all things morbid. After her initial disappointment that boxtrolls don’t live in a lair with rivers of blood, the precocious, rich child decides to help Eggs after learning of Archibald’s plots and that boxtrolls are harmless.

Eggs and Winnie.

I found the characters in this story really enjoyable. Egg’s determination, bravery, and lack of knowledge of normal human social cues are endearing. Winnie’s obsession with gore in the face of her outward aristocratic appearance is amusing. And their struggles – Eggs loss of his adoptive and real parents, and Winnie dealing with her neglectful, self-absorbed father – are rather heartfelt. Our villain, however, nearly steals the spotlight. He’s sinister, ugly (in both appearance and personality), and will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. He’s also got a great voice to go with his putrid nature. In a way, if it weren’t for his intimidating evil presence, he could totally be considered a funny and humorous villain. For one, counter to his motives to become a white hat and eat fine cheese, he’s actually allergic to cheese. Imagine being allergic to cheese in a world where cheese equals prestige? Yet he is in extreme denial of this fact, to the point where he will have violent allergic reactions leading to some very grotesque imagery. He also dresses as a woman, numerous times, in a ploy to spread the idea that boxtrolls are evil, and also to seduce the mayor. Even with these random quirks that seem almost designed to get a cheap laugh, you never forget that he is a terrible force to be reckoned with. There are plenty of chilling scenes with him where he is downright murderous. One involves him cornering Eggs in a closet as he prepares to strangle the boy with a scarf. Even if the rest of the movie doesn’t catch your eye, Snatcher won’t be a villain any viewer will easily forget!

Archibald Snatcher holding a much desired white hat.

As per usual with Laika, the animation, including the setting, scenery, movement, and facial expressions are done exceedingly well. The company excels in subtle expressions and facial movement. It also does a great job with capturing the personality of each character simply through their body language. Eggs constantly moves around in a somewhat crouching and feral manner; and every time he is forced to be proper and stand upright, you can tell that it feels very unnatural to him. Winnie’s movements are a lot more confident and precise, as well as overly dramatic, as if she were constantly acting out her own play. Snatcher’s are always in a slow and sloping manner, and he tends to move his limbs in large sweeping motions as he talks. The backgrounds and scenery are great, too. The subdued color palette, along with appropriate lighting, sets the right mood for all of its scenes. I really like the misty atmosphere of the courtyard in the scene where Winnie throws her father’s hat out of the window. The scene in the boxtroll’s lair when Archibald attacks it with his machine is terrifyingly done with its smoke and fiery red lighting.  I also love how the beginning and the ending scenes connect, with Fish searching for Eggs in the beginning, and then Eggs looking for Fish in a similar manner at the end. All of the scenes with the boxtrolls, which contain no dialogue (since they don’t speak human) are excellent too, because any interactions are conveyed visually. I like it when a visual medium is actually making use of its visuals. Oh, and if you do watch this movie, make sure to watch through to end credit scene where Laika shows off its stop motion animation prowess. Here two red hat henchmen have a meta conversation about how their lives feel like someone is controlling them, while at the same time we see a sped-up ghost of an animator moving them around.

Animation in progress.

Laika is good at what it does and I continue to be impressed by them in both their amazing animation skills, and top-notch storytelling. One can tell that this company puts a lot of effort into their art, while at the same time the execution of their films feel smooth and effortless. I feel like I get excited for their films now in a similar manner that I would be hyped for watching a new Disney or Pixar film. Though I would recommend the other two Laika stop motion films more, The Boxtrolls is certainly worthy to be in their ranks. I look forward to seeing more from Laika, a studio that in my opinion, is the most skillful with stop-motion animation that I’ve ever seen.

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