Amid a sea of films aimed for the kiddie market, Laika has been able to distinguish itself not only by its mastery of the visually thrilling and time consuming process of stop-motion animation, but also through an embrace of a dark side.
Like some of Disney's earliest features or the anime genius of Studio Ghibli, this Portland-based film production company doesn't shy away from the scarier side of stories, as evidenced by its first two films: the 2009 adaptation of Neil Gaiman's scintillating fantasy novella Coraline, and the 2012 zombies in a small town comedy Paranorman. Even at their most slapstick-y, both movies were bathed in shadows and creepy-crawlies.
For its third feature The Boxtrolls (adapted very loosely from Alan Snow's book, "Here Be Monsters!"), Laika takes one small step toward the lighter side of children's fare. There are still slightly grotesque, yet strangely alluring creatures at the heart of the story, but unlike the undead of Paranorman or the Other Parents of Coraline, the monsters are the heroes of this tale.
The titular Boxtrolls are ugly little turds with hearts of gold. Most nights, these nocturnal creatures wander the alleyways of Cheesebridge, digging for scrap metal and other gewgaws that they take home and incorporate into elaborate Rube Goldberg-like devices. One night, the Boxtrolls—named such because they use old boxes as both clothing and a hiding place—carry back a small child with them. It's a move that leads the townspeople to fear these kindly creatures and to encourage a nasty bunch of exterminators, led by the bulbous Archibald Snatcher (a positively unrecognizable Ben Kingsley), to dispense of the blue-green-skinned goblins.
Of course, the Boxtrolls mean the kid no harm and instead raise him as their own, naming him Eggs after the label on the box he wears (they are all given similar names like Shoe or Fish). It's fairly idyllic until the population of the little trash collectors starts dwindling and the lad runs into Winnie (Elle Fanning), who works to convince him that he's a "proper boy" and to use that fact to protect his surrogate family.
That's when things get complicated in the best and worst ways possible. The elaborate set pieces that the animators build get bigger and bigger as the film moves along, including a dazzling and dizzying dance sequence and the movements of a smoke-belching machine Snatcher had built to nab the remaining Boxtrolls.
The story becomes muddled as Laika, for the first time in its short cinematic history, tries to squeeze an important message into this tale. Writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava fairly strain under the effort of reminding young viewers to be who they are and tsk-tsking at neglectful parents like Winnie's cheese-obsessed father. The subtle lesson of recycling was a nice touch but it gets pushed aside in the service of big aphorisms.
Those are the growing pains to be expected from an animation company trying to make its first real push against the big boys like Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks. In fact, attaching a moral compass to The Boxtrolls might just be the thing to draw in a much bigger global audience along with their keen use of voice talent (comedy TV vets Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and Tracy Morgan are particularly great as Snatcher's trio of henchmen) and, of course, their jaw-dropping stop-motion work. And if it affords them the opportunity to continue to astonish us with new films, letting a little light and an ethics lesson into the proceedings will have been worth it.
Opens Various Theaters
Fri., Sept. 26