Stop motion animation is a pretty weird medium. It was an early special effects trick, long since superseded by technology. But the craft that goes into it is so meticulous and particular that for a group of fans, it has a feeling no technological advancement can replace. Laika, the film studio started by stop motion enthusiast (and Nike heir) Travis Knight has pioneered forward looking stop-motion animation feature films, starting with Coraline. They’ve combined the relatively primitive technique with cutting edge technology to make films that look almost as pristine as CGI but have the feel of hand-crafting that’s endemic to stop motion’s appeal.
But stop motion is still weird. And their movies have been weird. Coraline (one of my favorite films) is based on a Neil Gaiman children’s novel with some incredibly creepy visuals. Their second film, Paranormal, is about a zombie invasion, where the zombies aren’t the bad guys. And The Boxtrolls is set in an incredibly odd world. It’s a Victorian England setting where the color of your hat determines your social status and enjoying cheese is the height of sophistication. Also, trolls who wear boxes for clothes live in the sewers.
One night, they are reported to have kidnapped, and presumably eaten, a child. The odious Snatcher goes to the aristocratic Lord Portley-Rind to strike a bargain. He gets rid of the monstrous boxtrolls, and he gets to switch his low-status red hat for a white one, and join the elite in their cheese tasting room.
But the boxtrolls have not kidnapped the child, but saved him, and taken him under their wing… or box. Called Eggs (that’s what’s printed on his box) he grows up under the impression he, too, is a boxtroll. He lives happily on bugs and night patrols. The boxtrolls seem to exist primarily to go around stealing items to make gadgets of. They are very clever tinkerers. But year by year, their numbers dwindle as Snatcher and his cronies find and capture them.
When Eggs’ surrogate father Fish is taken, he finally turns against the boxtroll ethos of hiding and running away. He decides to finally do something.
He disguises himself as a human (easy enough since he is one) and goes to the surface. There he meets the neglected daughter of Portley-Rind, Winnifred, who has grown up on horrible tales of the evils of the boxtrolls… and kind of wishes they would do away with her family.
There’s a perversity to her character, but there tends to be a bit of perversity to a lot of Laika stories and films. They are weird. The elite obsession with cheese, the boxtrolls living underground and munching on bugs. It’s all kind of gross.
Worse still is Snatcher’s designs to get above his station. He’s an exterminator who wants to be a gentleman, which means he has to eat cheese. But he has a debilitating allergy to dairy, and when he eats cheese with his henchman his face and hands swell grotesquely. It’s genuinely ugly… and that’s part of the paradox of this film. Being stop motion, everything is hand crafted (or 3d printed – that’s how the facial animations are so fluid.) While it’s beautifully made, some of it is genuinely hideous to behold.
It took a while for the setting to grow on me, and some aspects never did. The boxtrolls themselves are unlovely, but sweetly portrayed enough that I began to feel affection for them. But aside from strong-willed Winnifred and a couple of Snatcher’s henchmen who begin to realize they’re not the good guys, all of the human characters are completely loathsome. I can understand why this works for the story, but Lord Portley-Rind’s complete neglect of his daughter and the other aristocrats absolute decadence goes too far for the story the movie is trying to tell. They’re on some level more villainous than the film’s villain. Which could be the point in another film, but in an animated story about benign underground trolls, the critique of class structure requires more nuance to be effective or believable.
That said, The Boxtrolls, once one gets acclimated to the quirks of its world, is an entertaining and attractive film. Visually, it doesn’t have the broadest color pallete, but its stylized colors are lovingly reproduced on this new 4K release. As with every Laika production, the animation and visual quality is so high it’s hard to believe these characters are manipulated puppets (a point made in an amusing mid-credits scene by a couple of Snatcher’s reformed henchman.) The Boxtrolls is an odd, but ultimately oddly charming film.
The Boxtrolls Steelbook 4K has been released by Shout Factory. The release includes both a 4K UHD and a Blu-ray. Extras are included only on the Blu-ray. Extras include a commentary track by directors Graham Annabel and Anthony Stacci. Video extras include “Inside Laika: Discovering the Characters of The Boxtrolls” (10 min), which discusses the characters in the film; “Inside Laika: Revisiting the Puppets with Laika’s Animation Team” (10 min), which shows off the puppets of various characters; Feature-Length Storyboards (96 min); “Dare to be Square: Behind the Scenes of The Boxtrolls,” a making-of in several segments: “Voicing The Boxtrolls” (12 min), “Inside the Box” (6 min), “The Big Cheese: Allergy Snatcher” (5 min), “Deconstructing the Dance” (6 min), and “Think Big: The Mecha Drill” (6 min). “The Nature of Creation” (3 min); “Trolls Right Off the Tongue” (3 mins) about actors Steven Blum and Dee Baker, who created the boxtroll language; “Allergic to Easy” (3 mins) about Laika itself; “Let’s Dance” (2 mins), a music video about the ballroom dance scene; and “On the Shoulders of Giants” (3 mins) about the massive mecha drill puppet. There’s also an image gallery and theatrical trailer.