Released September 26th. Stars: Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan. Directors: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi. Produced by Laika. Distributed by Focus Features. The distribution company provided an advance screening of this film.

The Boxtrolls is a visual delight without a lot of substance… and that’s okay.

The closest thing to an accurate capsule-description I can manage of The Boxtrolls is that it’s sort-of like an animated, kid-friendly cross between Fraggle Rock and Clive Barker’s Nightbreed from Laika, the stop-motion saviors responsible for last year’s magnificent ParaNorman. If you recognize all three of those things and the combination appeals to you, Boxtrolls should be the easiest ticket you buy all year.

The film is an animated comedy-adventure, based (very loosely) on a childrens’ novel called Here Be Monsters. Set in the cheese-fixated town of Cheesebridge (a vaguely-19th Century fusion of Swiss, French and Dickensian Britain), it focuses on a longstanding conflict between the town’s human population and the Boxtrolls, a race of underground-dwelling creatures who use discarded cardboard boxes like turtle-shells and who’ve built a thriving sub-city of their own via a natural genius for repurposing “junk” thrown out by the wasteful humans.

The two races have never precisely gotten along, but as the film opens the tensions escalates when local ne’er-do-well Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) informs town leader Lord Portley-Rind that Boxtrolls have stolen away — and likely devoured — a Cheesebridge baby. Snatcher offers to set about the task of exterminating the “monsters,” but on one condition: He wants to be admitted, despite his lower-class origins, to “The White Hats,” the council of high-born locals who ostensibly “run” Cheesebridge but mostly hold “meetings” in Portley-Rind’s exclusive cheese-tasting room.

But! However it is that the Boxtrolls came by a human baby, it turns out they’ve no intention of eating him. Instead, they raise “Eggs” (Boxtrolls are named based on their boxes, so “Fish,” “Shoes,” “Fragile,” etc.) as one of their own. As it turns out, they’re actually gentle creatures who instinctively hide inside their boxes at the merest hint of danger — which, unfortunately, makes them easy prey for Snatcher’s “Red Hat Exterminators.” As ten years pass, their population is drastically reduced as Eggs grows up believing that he is simply a Boxtroll just a bit taller and less-flexible than the others… and also more prone to fight back.

When his adoptive father, Fish, falls prey to Snatcher, Eggs ascends to the surface world “disguised” as a human (a lot of the film’s comedy is based on the ability/inability to disguise oneself — including a major plot-point which I won’t spoil). There, he discovers that Cheesebridge has built an entire holiday around villainizing Boxtrolls and memorializing the “murdered” baby, and also makes friends with Portley-Rind’s delightfully-morbid, Boxtroll-obsessed daughter; who realizes that Eggs’ existence can prove the whole decade of Troll-hate is based on a lie. Unfortunately, Snatcher has much more nefarious schemes at work…

It’s at first a bit disappointing to note that the film is, quite simply, not as good as ParaNorman, but it’s also not really going for that same kind of result. Boxtrolls is aiming younger and broader, with a simple story whose moral is apparent upfront with acts punctuated by surprise-reveals that even the youngest viewers will likely figure out right away. And while it has a lot of the same quirky/quaint humor (think family-friendly Monty Python) that underlines a lot of the “classier” kid films, it’s more than enthusiastic in its understanding that children tend to love “gross” things — there isn’t much in the film that isn’t designed to bulge, ooze or squick in some way, aesthetically or otherwise.

That commitment to “ugliness” extends out to the characters admirably: The Boxtrolls are predictably ghoulish looking, but next to a human populace (even the “good” humans like Eggs) sporting uniformly misshapen bodies, crooked teeth and ungainly limbs they don’t seem all that out of place — which is, of course, the whole point. In some ways, especially once Eggs is attempting to move among humanity, you get the sense that the overall metaphor could be meant to convey a child’s view of the absurdities of the adult world; with its fixations on body-shape, mustaches, makeup and status-signifying hats.

Interestingly, the film’s ugliest character (literally and figuratively), Snatcher, takes over big stretches of the narrative as though he were the main character — and, in a way, he is. It’s his actions that drive about 90% of the plot, and the main lesson that needs learning (“you can change what you are, but not by simply changing what you look like”) needs learning by him most of all. He’s also the most original creation of the story by far, a dark inversion of the Dickensian upward-mobility parable: A monster who wants to be a man, and has confused that desire with more “just” goal of wanting to elevate one’s station.

And yet he’s also weirdly compelling: The pathetic smallness of his aims (he really does just want to have a fancy rich man’s hat and join an exclusive fancy-food club) versus the horrifying lengths he’s willing to go for them would be funny and almost endearing if he wasn’t doing all the nasty things he does to get there. I wonder if some folks will actually read a “pro-classist” message into the extra gag that he’s actually severely allergic to cheese — in other words, he can’t even make use of the wealth/status he claims to want. (The ultimate expression of how far he’s willing to go in his scheme, which will remain unspoiled, could also potentially earn some sideways-glances, though I doubt it was meant with any kind of malice.)

Bottom Line: There aren’t a lot of family films out at the moment, so Boxtrolls can probably look forward to a fairly healthy boxoffice no matter what. But it’s a good time at the theater, visually inventive with a lot of heart and a welcome story about finding and accepting oneself.

Recommendation: Kids will enjoy, especially if their tastes in comedy run to the slapstick and lightly-scatalogical. Fans of the old Aardman animated classics (many of whose creators now make up the core of Laika) will also most-definitely want to check it out.



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