Proof positive that Laika’s underappreciated third film deserves a second or third look
In Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s underappreciated feature-length debut as director and Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio LAIKA’s third, The Boxtrolls, the title characters, blue-hued, yellow-eyed, and pointy-eared, make their home in the labyrinthine tunnels and sewers under the hilltop town of Cheesebridge and the fictional country of Norvenia sometime in the late 19th century. Socially, politically, and culturally stratified or bifurcated by geography (the higher, the better), class (the wealthier, the more obsessed with cheese and all of its aromatic varieties), and race (boxtrolls are, by definition, monsters; humans aren’t).
While the boxtrolls of the title take the key spot narratively speaking, The Boxtrolls actually centers on a 10-year-old orphan, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright), raised by the boxtrolls as one of their own. Like the other boxtrolls, Eggs takes his name from the box he wears like an outer suit of clothes. The boxtrolls, on the other hand, don’t wear anything at all under their boxes. As a socially and environmentally conscious community (coded exclusively as male), the boxtrolls survive and thrive in a culture structured around recycling the upper world’s refuse and detritus, building large-scale, Rube-Goldberg devices to keep their unnamed community fully functioning and fully powered.
Not all is copacetic, however, in Cheesebridge. The boxtrolls aren’t tolerated by the denizens of the upper world. They’re considered monsters, vermin to be found and — in a potentially dark plot twist too heavy for preadolescent children — the object of obsessive attention for Cheesebridge’s pest-control specialist, Archibald “Archie” Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), and his trio of henchmen, Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan). Snatcher rightly sees removing the boxtrolls from Cheesebridge as the keyway to social mobility, specifically obtaining a rare, coveted “white hat” from Cheesebridge’s senior council and it’s self-absorbed, sanctimonious leader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris).
As Snatcher presses the advantage, corralling increasingly greater numbers of the boxtrolls, a desperate Eggs decides to venture out into the upper world first at night and later during the daytime, repeatedly crossing paths with the senior Portley-Rind’s long-neglected daughter, Winifred “Winnie” (Elle Fanning), a stubborn, tiny terror in pigtails. Eggs and Winnie form an unlikely alliance to find and free the boxtrolls and stop Snatcher’s diabolical plans for curd-based domination signified by the elite’s white hats. Their alliance not only combines two story strands, but also symbolizes the deliberate breakdown and break-up of class boundaries.
In the boxtrolls, LAIKA succeeds — probably too well — in creating a uniquely grotesque addition to their brand. Borderline repugnant, if not in their physical appearances, then in their hygienic habits (or lack thereof). Bathing doesn’t appear to be an option. Consuming subterranean bugs as their main source of nutrition isn’t either. That might be perfect for a certain subset of viewers, but probably not for a majority of them. Your tastes, of course, may vary. Credit and kudos, though, to LAIKA for leaning all the way into depicting the boxtrolls as the opposite of aesthetically pleasing, cuddly or otherwise.
Outside of Eggs and the morbidly obsessed Winnie (she can’t imagine the boxtrolls as anything except as human-devouring monsters), Cheesebridge’s topside denizens don’t acquit themselves particularly well, ranging from the narcissistic and venal (Lord Portley-Rind) to the selfish and greedy (Snatcher and his henchmen), with Cheesebridge’s other citizens seemingly content with the deeply unjust status quo. Unsurprisingly, The Boxtrolls finds a form of redemption for the human characters in acceptance and empathy for each other regardless of class and for the deeply misunderstood boxtrolls, dismissed as alien “others” for their physical appearance and how (and where) they live.
Just as unsurprisingly, the stop-motion animation in The Boxtrolls remains marvelous to behold. From the boxtrolls’ underground environs to Lord Portley-Rind’s palatial estate, the texture-rich world-building also remains unparalleled. LAIKA’s team of animators pays as much attention to the background characters, varying them in size, shape, and clothing, as it does the backgrounds and off-kilter buildings that pepper Cheesebridge’s multi-level hills, dotting each with swirls of visual humor easily missed on a first or even second humor.
The script also mirrors and complements the visual design, finding comedy in the characters’ interactions, physical gags, and recurring jokes, like Snatcher’s henchmen musing on the nature of good and evil and whether the actions they perceive as heroic are, in fact, anything but. Sometimes, though, the humor veers into coarse grossness, especially in Snatcher’s maniacal obsession and everything it represents (i.e., leisure among the town’s moneyed elites) regardless of whether his allergies to dairy products could lead to his eventual, Monty Python-inspired demise.
Bonus Features for UHD/Blu-ray
DISC ONE (4K UHD):
NEW 4K Restoration
NEW Dolby Atmos 7.1 Mix
DISC TWO (BLU-RAY):
“Inside LAIKA” — Discovering The Characters Of The Boxtrolls Featuring Rare Test Footage “Inside LAIKA” — Revisiting The Puppets With LAIKA’s Animation Team
Character Art and Concept Art Photo Gallery
Foreword By Ramin Zahed, Editor In Chief Of Animation Magazine
Audio Commentary with Directors Graham Annable And Anthony Stacchi
“Dare To Be Square”– The Making Of The Boxtrolls
Art & Essay Mini-Book