‘The BoxTrolls’ is a spectacular children’s animated feature, but it’s not a film for anyone whose idea of family entertainment starts and ends with Disney. It’s dark to the point of being horrific, gleefully gross, and pithily British in its humor. The movie owes more to Roald Dahl than Uncle Walt. In other words, it’s one that kids will adore even if it might make their parents slightly uncomfortable.
Based on Alan Snow’s novel ‘Here Be Monsters!’, ‘The BoxTrolls’ is a deliciously twisted children’s horror/comedy from the stop-motion animation masters at Laika (‘Coraline’, ‘ParaNorman’). The tale is set in the industrial/medieval town of Cheesebridge, where the locals all fear monsters known as the BoxTrolls. They are, as the name suggests, little trolls who wear cardboard boxes. They’re also closer to Santa’s elves than monsters, mending machines and helping the town in secret under the cover of nightfall. However, the community has been told to fear the trolls by the nasty Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kinsley, channeling a PG version of Don Logan from beyond the grave) as part of his dastardly plot to join the cheese-eating aristocratic White Hats (don’t ask). Things just might change when a little girl (Elle Fanning) discovers an orphan boy (Issac Hepsted Wright) who lives amongst the trolls and has a very different story to tell than the one everyone knows.
The most exquisitely enjoyable aspect of ‘The BoxTrolls’ is just how wonderfully naughty it is. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi make no attempt to soften their monster movie influences. This is a staple of the animation company Laika, which is no real surprise given that founder Henry Selick made his name directing ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and set the tone for Laika with ‘Coraline’. Somehow, ‘BoxTrolls’ pushes the gleeful grossness and playfully disturbing monstrousness of Laika’s house style further than ever before. Yet, it’s no more frightening than a Roald Dahl story or Grimm fairy tale. Gentle scares are foundational elements of children’s entertainment, and Laika simply knows how to embrace that better than anyone. The movie is creepy and funny through unbelievably beautiful stop-motion animation. Smoothly realized, yet clearly handcrafted, the film looks astonishing and truly transports viewers to another world. Even the 3D is well employed and useful in its immersion.
The story is ultimately about learning to accept others and ourselves regardless of appearances, yet the message arrives through such weird, surreal and sardonic humor that it never once feels sentimental or forced. There’s a school of British comedy that’s highly moral through absurd means, and ‘BoxTrolls’ slides nicely into that style. Aided by a masterfully evil vocal performance by Sir Ben Kingsley as well as a slew of British comedians like Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, the film has a distinctly British tone to its dark comedy and gothic shenanigans that places it ever so slightly outside the mainstream in the best possible way. This is fully-fledged family entertainment, just with an edge. It’s a movie for all those kids out there who value the Wolf Man as much as Mickey Mouse, and even theoretically adult viewers who were once those children.
Annable, Stacchi and the entire Laika team have delivered a gently subversive gothic fairy tale presented through some of the finest stop-motion animation ever achieved. The movie bursts at the seams with clever jokes, creepy content, beautiful animation and genuinely emotional storytelling. ‘The BoxTrolls’ might not be the most easily packaged family film on the market at the moment, but it’s hard to imagine a better one this year. The filmmakers deserve for their accomplishment to be a massive hit. See it immediately, even if you don’t have a child in your life to use as an excuse to get you in the theater.
*Also, make sure you stay through the end credits for a fantastic joke showing off the remarkable effort that went into the animation. I never use addendums in reviews for this sort of thing, but this one is worth it.