Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The story revolves around a fateful night where Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) convinces an entire town that Boxtrolls are evil. He’s a shifty, deplorable man that wants to elevate his class and become someone important in society. So he simply convinces everyone that Boxtrolls plan to steal everyone’s children after Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is taken from his home and never returns to human life. Instead, he’s raised by the titular cave-dwelling trash collectors that nurture him like he’s their son. They are compassionate, loyal creatures that don’t speak a lick of English but communicate wonderfully with one another and enjoy the finer elements of the life happening right above them. Snatcher plans to exterminate the Boxtrolls in order to be accepted into the “White Hat” society within their town, which is comprised of four wealthy men that sit around, eat cheese, and feel great about themselves.
Poignancy always emerges within Laika’s films. I’m not sure if it’s the delicacy of the animation and the countless hours they spend creating every scene, or just the foundational developments that remain so wholly realized and unique. Snatcher is such a triumphantly exciting character, one that’s both despicable and understandable. He has his weird quirks, including but not limited to dressing as a woman for burlesque shows and having a tragic allergy to all cheeses. Kingsley does an extraordinary job with the voice work, allowing the audience to get a semblance of his emotional core despite his generally spiteful, immoral actions. There’s also a gleeful approach to the animation in terms of the cinematography on display; most animated films don’t get recognized for their spacial work, but there are some gorgeous scenic shots and use of background/foreground jokes that I found hilarious. The supporting players bring a great sense of comedic timing too, with Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost providing a modern, dry twist on a variation of Laurel & Hardy.
There’s a brilliant moment in the film’s conclusion that might be one of the funniest and most striking moments ever in an animated film, since it cracks jokes about the filmmaking while simultaneously helping the audience visualize how much work goes into Laika’s stop-motion. And while the film carries some flaws, particularly when it falls into traditional narrative trappings (like toying with the audience’s emotion about whether central characters are dead when, in fact, they are most certainly not), the narrative always harkens back to its beautiful heart. There are strong, dark currents underneath the story, particularly explicit hints at racial/ethnic persecution (with imagery that may potentially suggest genocide), but the characters at the center care deeply about one another and want others to love as they do. The Boxtrolls is more than simple family fare: it’s an exquisitely breathtaking, hilarious, and emotionally resonant triumph.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)