12 September 2014

Review: THE BOXTROLLS

The national treasure that is Aardman generally takes quite a while between making films- their first film since 2012's The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists will be next year's Shaun the Sheep. In meantime, American studio Laika Animation has been flying the flag for stop-motion animation, as well as making some pretty impressive technical advances with the goal of being able to produce features annually. Even more impressive is that they've turned out three cracking family films in the process.

Their latest is The Boxtrolls, based in part on the novel Here Be Monsters! Beneath the town of Cheesebridge, whose council consists of four white-hatted cheese-munching toffs, there dwells a race of Womble-like trolls who scavenge what they need to survive from the folk who live above. Ruthless social climber Archibald Snatcher will do anything to upgrade from red hat to white hat and having turned the town against the Boxtrolls, he vows to exterminate every last one of them to cement his position.

Laika's last two films, Coraline and ParaNorman, both dealt in horror genre tropes, sparing no scares in the process of telling a story that told kids not to be scared of being different and preached open-mindedness in the face of fear and intolerance. The Boxtrolls is the studio's funniest film to date, but aside from the thematic emphasis that links all of their films thus far, their affinity for the grotesque is still present and correct.

The nominal lead characters are Eggs, a boy that Snatcher claims was killed by the savage scavengers but was actually raised as the Boxtrolls' own, and Winnie, the neglected daughter who discovers and befriends Eggs. Their relative normality stands out starkly from the weird and exquisitely animated populace of Cheesebridge, although they don't feel as central to the plot as Coraline or Norman did in their respective films. It's successfully weirder than anything Laika has done before and the heroes help to ground the utterly insane action that's going on around them.

The Boxtrolls themselves are a little reminiscent of the Minions from Despicable Me, with the way in which they are distinguished from one another as characters, but also in the squabbling en-masse baby talk that fills any scene where there are lots of them. By necessity of the plot, they're not nearly as violent on the Looney Tunes scale, because it's important that we care that they might get hurt, or worse. Crucially, it manages to make them cute despite the fact that they're butt-ugly little critters at first glance, with their ashen skin, buck-teeth and big bright eyes.

Meanwhile, although Snatcher is far from the hero of the story, he's the kind of brilliantly drawn arch-villain who has convinced himself that he is. He's also the most interesting character to study, seeing the lengths that he will go to for power in a town obsessed with tasting cheese, even though he himself is lactose intolerant. Ben Kingsley's all-but-unrecognisable vocal work makes him into a truly ridiculous figure who still comes off as a threat because of his sheer malice. For comic relief, he's backed up by Tracy Morgan as his second in command and a hilarious pair of henchmen voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, who re-enact the "Are we the baddies?" shtick from That Mitchell & Webb Look. ("I'm about 60% sure we're still the good guys.")

As in the best voiced animated films, there's a refreshingly anonymous quality to the performances of the all-star cast. The only voices I definitely recognised all the way through were Ayoade and Jared Harris, as Winnie's cheese-daft father and for the first time in years, I had to stay for the credits to find out who voiced the other characters. The vocals fill out the sumptuous visuals nicely and there's even a delightful mid-credits reward for anyone who sticks around that long. Trust me, this little add-on is near unmissable, suggesting a larger universe to the film in a more delightful fashion than any number of Nick Fury cameos could create.

The Boxtrolls is essential viewing for the little weirdo in your life but Laika has once again excelled in making movies for families rather than for kids. There's just as much for adults to enjoy here, in the witty script and gorgeous visuals, as there is for younger viewers and the studio are steadily building themselves a catalogue of early-Pixar calibre classics. At worst, all they'd be doing is keeping the technique warm for Aardman, but at this rate, Laika is surpassing most of the CG behemoth animation companies in town with their attention to detail, character and theme.

The Boxtrolls is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen The Boxtrolls, why not share your comments below? If you've read this far, here's another reminder- stay through the credits!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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