Contraptions of one sort or another dominate the visual design of The Boxtrolls, which is fitting, for the movie is something of a contraption itself. Created via wonderfully intricate stop-motion animation, The Boxtrolls at times looks as if it’s made from materials found in the back closet of an arts-and-crafts class.
That’s not a criticism. If anything, the scruffiness offers relief from the dull smoothness of so much contemporary computer animation. Here we can delight in the multi-dimensional detail of things like the dented boxes the trolls wear as clothes or the villain’s demented teeth, which seem to be going in six directions at once.
That villain is Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley in Fagin mode). A desperate social climber in the class-conscious town of Cheesebridge, Snatcher will do anything to trade in his common red hat for one of the white ones worn by the town’s aristocrats. And so he promises the mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), that he will rid Cheesebridge of the boxtrolls that wreak havoc every night. Only thing is, the boxtrolls are actually a peaceable, timid lot, who come out under cover of darkness seeking spare parts that can be used in their makeshift village underground. Snatcher sells the horror angle, though, and proceeds to patrol the streets in his ramshackle extermination vehicle, hunting the boxtrolls down.
There’s a bit of a lesson here, but nothing too heavily ladled.
Although it’s based on the Alan Snow children’s novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls seems to owe much to the work of Roald Dahl. This is especially true in its depiction of adults, who are either cruel or buffoonish. (Lord Portley-Rind and his cronies spend most of their time tasting various cheeses; Snatcher is so desperate to join them that he eats cheese even though it causes his face to swell and bulge horrifically due to an allergic reaction.) And the kids aren’t necessarily angels, even if they are the de facto heroes. While the main character is a brave boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who has been raised by boxtrolls, he eventually teams up with Portley-Rind’s daughter (Elle Fanning), who is a bit of a brat.
Indeed, the boxtrolls themselves may be the movie’s most appealing characters. Named for the boxes they wear – Fish, Shoes, Fragile – these creatures have the habit of simply dropping to the ground and shivering in their cardboard whenever Snatcher appears, making it easy for him to scoop them up. It’s up to the boy – named Eggs, for his box – to teach them not only to run, but to fight back.
So there’s a bit of a lesson here, but nothing too heavily ladled. What’s more, it doesn’t get in the way of the movie’s cleverer elements: the way Snatcher’s henchmen are continually debating whether they’re the good guys or bad guys; the cobblestone creativity of Cheesebridge’s buildings and streets; the glowing eyes of the boxtrolls on their nocturnal forays. As for the glorious putridity of Snatcher’s allergic reactions, it’s fair to say only the tactile nature of stop-motion animation could truly do justice to that.