by Patrick Bromley
With their latest effort The Boxtrolls, the American animation studio Laika is now three for three. Like their two previous films, 2009's Coraline and 2012's ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls is about a lot of things, among them mob mentality fear, concepts of good and evil and what it's like to feel alienated for being different. Unlike its two previous films, it has a mostly generic and uninvolving adolescent lead at its center and too loose a grasp on its narrative. It still manages to be a beautiful, immersive and surprisingly dark tale that's just right for getting in the mood days before October begins.
Little Eggs (Isaac Hempsted Wright, aka Bran Stark on Game of Thrones) is a human boy living among the Boxtrolls, who are underground monsters obsessed with building things and who are afraid of just about everything -- hence the boxes they wear in which they can hide like turtles retreating to their shells (their names -- Fish, Shoes, etc. -- come from whatever picture is on their box). The story above ground goes that Eggs was a human baby stolen by the Boxtrolls to be eaten, which was all the justification needed by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) to enlist the services of an evil exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), so that he might round up and kill every last Boxtroll. For his efforts, Snatcher's greatest dream will be realized: he will be granted membership into the prestigious White Hats, a group of aristocrats (led by Portley-Rind) whose main pastime is discussing and eating various kinds of cheese. Now it's up to Eggs and his one human friend Winnie (daughter of Portley-Rind, voiced by Elle Fanning) to protect the Boxtrolls before they're wiped out for good.
More interesting are Snatcher's henchmen, Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) and Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), whose ongoing conversation about whether they are heroes or villains becomes something of an existential gag. Yet there's a lot of truth to their crisis, which only serves to underscore one of the movie's major themes -- are your actions justified if you believe them to be good, even if you're working from wrong information? Is The Boxtrolls Laika's critique of the Iraq War? Or U.S. foreign policy in general?
Probably not, but the fact that the question can even be raised is a tribute to the screenplay (written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based upon Alan Snow's 2005 children's book Here Be Monsters!), which isn't content to be just more mindless kids' entertainment; Laika, like Pixar before them, make movies that work just as well for kids as they do adults, and not just by making vapid pop culture references or dirty innuendo. Frost and Ayoade's characterizations of Trout and Pickles are great, too; they're my favorite characters in the movie and at the center of the single best gag -- be sure to stay through the end credits as their existential plight continues.
Iron Man 3 and Sexy Beast, it's clear that Kingsley should play villains more often. Let us never mention BloodRayne again.
For all its incredible craftsmanship and sly humor, The Boxtrolls might still be Laika's least successful effort to date, if only because it lacks the commitment to its more fantastic elements -- there are entire sections in which it seems uninterested in exploring the expansive universe it builds by hand. It's a movie that doesn't quite measure up only by a high standard, though, and after The Lego Movie is probably the best animated film I've seen this year.