Boxtrolls, The (United States, 2014)

September 26, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Boxtrolls, The Poster

The Boxtrolls represents the best animated movie to reach theater screens since The Lego Movie exploded on the scene in February. A British-flavored, 3-D stop motion affair, The Boxtrolls channels more than a little Monty Python in telling its Tarzan-inspired story about a human boy who is raised by creatures called Boxtrolls. With top-notch animation, effective voice casting, and a screenplay that falters only toward the end when faced with the need to provide a resolution, The Boxtrolls offers solid entertainment for older children and the parents that accompany them.

What are Boxtrolls? Odd-looking, gnome-like creatures that wear boxes like clothing and skitter around the streets at night scavenging for bric-a-brac. Their wide, glowing eyes and wizened appearance makes them frightening to humans and all sorts of unsavory legends have grown up around them: they steal children, eat people, and live in a place where the bones of their victims are piled high. In truth, they're meek creatures whose first inclination upon being frightened is to hide. Their language recalls the sounds Jawas made in the first Star Wars movie; in fact, one wonders whether Boxtrolls might be Jawas without the robes.

Human boy Eggs (voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright) has lived with the Boxtrolls since he was about two years old. His surrogate parents are a long, lanky troll called Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) and the squat, foul-tempered Shoe (Steve Blum). Eggs is happy living in the underground cavern the Boxtrolls have made their home and workplace until the arrival of Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), a "red hat" who has vowed to rid Cheesebridge of its nighttime menace for a price: admission to the "white hat" elite led by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). After having secured Portley-Rind's agreement, Snatcher begins his campaign against the Boxtrolls (capturing them and putting them to work in his sweatshop), but he hasn't reckoned with the involvement of Eggs or Portley-Rind's perky daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning).

The Boxtrolls' allegorical aspects are obvious, but that's not inappropriate for a movie with this target demographic. The petty concerns evidenced by Cheesbridge's ruling body makes a pointed observation about government dysfunction. Why build a new children's hospital when the same amount of money will buy a huge cheese wheel? Pork barrel spending, indeed. There's also a positive message to go along with the cynical one: you can be whoever and whatever you want to be; your limitations don't have to be dictated by others.

The film's stop-motion visual aesthetic is sufficiently different that it doesn't feel like a clone of every Pixar/Dreamworks animated film out there. The human characters have the slightly exaggerated appearance of claymation creations and the Boxtrolls are weird-looking without being too scary for kids. The detailed set design creates a sense of atmosphere that's spookier than what one finds in generic animated fare. Both directors, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, come to The Boxtrolls with strong backgrounds in the field. Annable worked on Coraline and Paranoman (direct ancestors to this movie, both made by the same animation studio) and Stacci was involved in Antz and James and the Giant Peach.

Although this is technically an American movie, it feels British. Nearly everyone (including Elle Fanning) speaks with a British accent. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, two of the reigning kings of U.K. comedy, provide voice work. And Monty Python's fingerprints are all over things. How about a one-ton weight? Or a closing song written by Eric Idol? Or a climactic scene that is lifted directly from the Mr. Creosote skit in The Meaning of Life? And now for something completely different, indeed.

Although the story is solid, the vocal work is competent (especially by Ben Kingsley as the despicable Snatcher), and the visuals are impressive, the overall appeal is diminished by the vanilla nature of the lead character. Put simply, Eggs isn't all that interesting. He doesn't leave much of an impression. Winnie isn't much stronger. Since these two represent The Boxtrolls' emotional center, it's a noticeable failing that keeps this movie from ascending into the upper echelon of animated films. The Boxtrolls is engaging and will entertain children and adults but it doesn't stand out as great, revolutionary, or memorable.

Boxtrolls, The (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2014-09-26
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1