Based on a children’s novel called Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, the world of The Boxtrolls has a distinct Dickensian flavor mixed with just a sprinkling of Roald Dahl. It’s as if the famous Victorian author had hidden the outlines to a grungy, fantasy world in a back drawer populated by characters that never made it to his more famous novels where it was discovered years later by the stop-animation studio guys of Laika, the same ones who produced Coraline and ParaNorman.
The Boxtrolls are a large, though dwindling group of underground creatures who wear cardboard boxes like uniforms. Living in squalor-like conditions below the town of Cheesebridge, the mischievous trolls come out at night and rummage through trash looking for anything the sleeping citizens above have discarded. They steal springs, door numbers, street signs, anything. They’re gremlins without the mean streak. When they sleep during the day, they huddle together like storage.
But there’s trouble in Cheesebridge. A villainous character called Archibald Snatcher (voiced in thick cockney parlance by Ben Kingsley) has ambitions of grandeur. He wants to join the board of privileged town leaders wearing the much coveted white hat, the ultimate symbol of position and prestige, and the way he’s going to do it is to save the town from a problem it doesn’t really have while appearing like a hero doing it.
Looking like a cross between Oliver’s Fagin and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s childcatcher, the altogether unpleasant Mr. Snatcher spreads the fear-mongering lies that the harmless Boxtrolls are actually kidnappers of children who drag their victims down to their lair and eat them. According to Snatcher the catcher, the underground world is populated by mountains of bones surrounded by flowing rivers of blood. “They’ll stop at nuffink,” Snatcher declares to townsleader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), then adds as an aside to himself, “For a white hat, I’ll destroy every Boxtroll in town.”
There’s a fine line between what parents think children will find funny and what children actually laugh at it. The Boxtrolls straddles that line, occasionally drifting into some tricky territory of questionable visual taste that might result with parents grimacing and kids crying “Ewwww!” but delighted while doing it. When a young boy called Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) scratches himself in an ungentlemanly way in full view of everyone, a young girl called Winnie (Elle Fanning with a descent English accent) stops him. “Don’t scratch them in public,” she tells Eggs. “That’s why they’re called privates.”
The detailed, stop-motion, animated world of Cheesebridge is quite wonderful with its endless rows of cluttered terraced houses built along cobbled streets that twist and turn and all named after dairy products. “How do I get to Curds Way?” Eggs asks. Winnie points to another streets sign and tells him that, “Milk changes into it.”
In addition to eye-popping visuals – the film is in 3D, though a 2D version with its brighter image gives a better chance to savor the detail – The Boxtrolls is also very funny with a fast-paced script that never slows and dialog that keeps you smiling. When one of the villain’s henchmen, Mr. Pickles (voiced by film director Richard Ayoade) questions his role in rounding up the little trash collecting critters he asks his co-hort reflectively, “Do you think the Boxtrolls understand the duality between good and evil?”
And make sure you stay for the closing credits. In an inspired moment of comic invention, if anyone was questioning whether the animation was really claymation or computer generated imagery to make the characters look like claymation, you’ll get your answer, and it’s genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 100 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)