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Please Note: The stills used here are taken from the DVD portion of The Boxtrolls.
Chocablock full of nocturnal creatures, curious kids, stuffy aristocrats and more cheese than you can sniff at, The Boxtrolls is another stop-motion wonder from Laika, the Portland-based studio behind the similar, delightfully odd Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). It may be scattered and vaguely unsatisfying compared with those two gems, but The Boxtrolls positions Laika as one of the industry's most innovative movie producers - animated or not.
My first exposure to The Boxtrolls came from the unusual promo teaser put out by Laika in 2013. Accompanied by a twee rendition of "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands," the trailer eschewed the normal stuff about plot and character in favor of behind-the-scenes footage of hands at work - positioning armatured figures, making tiny props, ensuring that the villain's sculpted face is painted with just the right shade of rosy pink. Almost to the detriment of everything else, Laika wants everyone to know that the hand-crafted components of its films is what sets them apart from its CGI-based competitors. It's a message that carries through to Universal's home video edition of The Boxtrolls, as well. The package offers this admittedly imperfect movie in 3D and 2D formats on Blu Ray, along with a DVD and digital downloads sporting top-notch picture quality, immersive audio and a nice array of extras.
As streamlined from Alan Snow's labyrinthine 2005 book Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls follows a group of squat, blue-skinned creatures and the theatrical maniac who wants to exterminate them to satisfy his yearning to be accepted by the upper-crust citizens in the hilltop town of Cheesebridge (in case you didn't notice, it's a Nazi/Jew allegory). This being Laika, however, most of the story revolves around a plucky kid - a boy named Eggs, who was adopted by the Boxtrolls as a baby and raised as one of their own (the Boxtrolls name themselves after the contents of the cardboard boxes they wear). The town's head exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (vigorously voiced by Ben Kingsley), has struck a deal with Cheesebridge's stuffy mayor Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) to eliminate every Boxtroll in town in exchange for a prized seat on the city's white-hatted, cheese-tasting council elite. With his loyal henchmen Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), Archibald goes on nightly runs abducting Boxtrolls one by one, all the while mounting a fear-mongering campaign that the creatures are disgusting child-snatchers. All they really want, however, is to collect the humans' castoffs, junk and other debris for their vast underground lair (what for? It's never clearly explained). The peaceful Boxtrolls just kind of accept their dwindling fate, until Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is discovered one night by Lord Portley-Rind's bossy, neglected daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning). Convinced by Winnie to stand up for themselves, Eggs and the remaining Boxtrolls eventually discover the real reason behind Archibald's plan - and it involves Eggs' father (Simon Pegg), an eccentric inventor believed to be dead.
Even as the ornate visual style, thoughtful craftsmanship, and kinetic animation in The Boxtrolls delights, there are a few things lacking in the story which weren't as apparent in Coraline and ParaNorman (it might be the central character, Eggs, being so naive and bland, or the fact that the Boxtrolls basically lack personality). Although the choppy pacing and lapses in logic (exactly how did Eggs learn to speak English?) led to a slight letdown on my first viewing, the second time I drunk in the offbeat, grotesque imagery and optimistic "be who you are" message and came away with a more positive impression. At a time when most animation studios are playing it safe with by-the-numbers sequels and focus group-tested junk, Laika is constantly setting itself up for new, challenging ways to expand on the relatively old-school medium of stop motion. This results in more elaborately built characters, bigger set-pieces, and enough instances of 3D-maximized flying, floating, rotating, gravity-defying stuff to inspire a "how'd they do that?" reaction. If it seems garish and too-perfect (CGI was used to enhance a few larger-scale scenes, although many simpler segments have an antiseptic feel), it's not for a lack of trying on Laika's part.
The Boxtrolls also takes a chance with wild, stylized visuals that evoke a morbid, British sensibility (the directors' commentary remarks that they went after a Ronald Searle-meets-Monty-Python look). The characters and settings sport a whimsical, deliberately ugly look while staying within the junk-shop aesthetic of Laika's previous movies. A grotesque, non-sentimental treatment extends to the story as well (I like how Winnie pretty much stays an entitles brat through the entire movie - no cheesy Disneyesque redemption for her). While I can't say this hybrid of Aardman stop-motion lumpiness and Terry Gilliam's Python animations works all the time, at least it flies in the face of most current kiddie fare. The height of this movie's squeamishness comes with Archibald Snatcher's allergic reactions whenever he samples the cheese he so covets. Having a man swell up with random, disgusting pus-filled bulges requires a lot of handiwork, and Laika is determined that no one forgets it.
The Blu Ray:
Universal and Focus Features' multi-format home video release of The Boxtrolls houses a Blu Ray and DVD disc in a standard Blu-sized snap case. It also contains an insert with code to watch the Ultraviolet digital edition online or on a mobile device The package is wrapped in a nifty cardboard sleeve with a lenticular image of Eggs, Winnie and some of the Boxtrolls.
The Boxtrolls' 1.78:1 widescreen image looks breathtaking at 1080p resolution, allowing one to see the painstaking attention to detail used in the characters and props. The Blu Ray edition offers the option to watch the theatrically released 3D version for those with compatible glasses and equipment (for the purposes of this review, I stuck with the 2D). The film's atmospheric lighting and intricate animation is rendered in a nicely saturated, crisp yet not too overly sharpened picture. The many nocturnal scenes have a rich, textural quality, while lighter parts like Eggs' first view of the town in daylight shimmer with beautiful color and sharp textures.
The film's 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack also impresses with a mix that supplies lots of vitality and atmosphere without being too aggressively done. The pristine dialogue track pretty much stays in the central channel, while music and sound effects are used atmospherically around the edges to complement the visuals' flurry of movement. It's actually quite a craftily done sound mix, which the directors make the point of highlighting in the disc's audio commentary. Additional audio is provided in Spanish and French 5.1, while optional subtitles are included in English SDH, Spanish and French. It should also be noted that the clicking selection sound effects on the main menu can be turned on or off.
Besides the choice between a 2D and 3D viewing experience on the Blu Ray, this set contains a pleasant array of extras, which mostly get repeated on the DVD.
- Audio Commentary. This feature-length track has directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacci, recorded together, affably discussing the challenges of this production, from adapting the sprawling source material to a concise, visually appealing film to the techniques involved in rendering fire (a surprisingly old-school method) and putting together Snatcher's massive mecha drill.
- Dare to Be Square: Behind the Scenes of The Boxtrolls (32:48). Laika's CEO Travis Knight is joined by The Boxtrolls' directors, select crew members, and all of the main voice actors in these informative pieces. Topics: Voicing the Boxtrolls, Inside the Box (the conception and design of the Boxtroll creatures), The Big Cheese: Allergy Snatcher, Deconstructing the Dance (covering a complex ballroom scene in the film), Think Big: The Mecha Drill.
- Featurettes (13:00). Five brief making-of pieces which Laika posted online before the film's premiere. These have some overlap with Dare to Be Square, although there are some unique shots and interviews with people not in the main segments. Topics: The Nature of Creation, Trolls Right Off the Tongue, Allergic to Easy, Let's Dance, On the Shoulders of Giants.
- Preliminary Animatic Sequences (17:29). A Blu Ray-only feature offers rough animatics of several scenes which ultimately got scrapped, including scenes that fill out Eggs' backstory and an early version of Archibald Snatcher which presents him as a more humorous, Zero Mostel-like figure. These are available with their original soundtrack or an audio commentary from Annable and Stacchi.
- Previews for other animated features are also supplied. These include Coraline and ParaNorman, although the lack of trailers or teasers for The Boxtrolls is a bummer.
Chaotic and strangely unappealing as it seemed upon first viewing, The Boxtrolls reaffirms Laika's place as one of the most risk-friendly animation studios going. The stop-motion studio's vibrant follow-up to Coraline and ParaNorman is their most intricate visual experience yet, which translates to a knockout Blu Ray edition. Story-wise, however, it's the weakest of the three films - which in the end makes it a movie that's easier to admire than to truly love. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.