Movie Review: “The Boxtrolls”

Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Jared Harris
Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi

Pixar may get all the love, but over the last five years, Laika Studios has really come into its own as a company that you can usually expect great things from. Not only has the Portland-based animation house breathed new life into the underappreciated art of stop-motion with movies like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” but they’ve done so with an offbeat style unlike any of their competitors. That Burton-esque spirit is alive and well in “The Boxtrolls,” but sadly, that’s about it. The studio’s latest film is an uncharacteristic misfire lacking the charm, wit and heart of its previous efforts, and although it has moments of brilliance, they’re buried beneath an uninspired script that left me feeling cold and indifferent.

The titular Boxtrolls are a race of builders who live in an underground lair eating bugs and tinkering with the junk they forage during their nighttime excursions above ground. Though they’re an otherwise friendly group, the Boxtrolls have been forced into hiding after a villainous schemer named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) used the disappearance of a local baby as a way to convince the townspeople that the Boxtrolls are dangerous monsters who eat children. Desperate to climb the social ladder and join the ranks of the town’s elite White Hats, Snatcher strikes a deal with their leader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), to exterminate all of the Boxtrolls in exchange for his very own white hat and access to their exclusive cheese-tasting club.

But what the townspeople don’t realize is that the missing child is actually alive and well, raised by the Boxtrolls as one of their own after his father gave him away. Now a fully-grown boy, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) – named after the cardboard box he wears on his body – has begun to fear for their survival after watching his friends get captured by Snatcher’s red hat-wearing henchman. With the help of Lord Portley-Rind’s meddlesome daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning), Eggs ventures into the city to rescue the Boxtrolls and expose Snatcher for the slimy charlatan that he is.

Adapted from Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters” book series, “The Boxtrolls” certainly isn’t short on plot, but despite an exposition-heavy first act, the story simply isn’t interesting enough to withstand its 97-minute runtime. It feels like a collage of much better movies funneled through a grotesque storybook world of discarded concept art. In fact, the only thing worse than the unappealing visuals are the characters themselves. Eggs doesn’t make for a very likeable protagonist, Winnie is an annoying sidekick with an unexplained interest in the macabre (seemingly because every Laika film has to have at least one), and Ben Kinsley’s Snatcher is given one of the lamest motivations in villain history. The only characters that are any fun are Snatcher’s henchman, voiced by the very funny Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, who spend the entire movie debating whether they’re the good guys or the villains of the story. It’s an amusing running gag that earns some of the film’s biggest laughs, few as they may be, and is a welcome reminder that the guys at Laika haven’t lost their touch completely.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of “The Boxtrolls,” however, is just how little the actual creatures factor into the story. These guys had the potential to be the Minion-like stars of the movie (they even speak in a gibberish language), but apart from dressing them in differently labeled boxes, only two of the Boxtrolls are given distinct personalities, and you never learn much about them either. Their very existence is even contradictive to the moral of the story, which argues against materialism with the assertion that you don’t need things like white hats or cheese to be happy. But of course, collecting things is exactly what the Boxtrolls live for, and that only muddles the message that directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi are trying to impart.

It’s just a shame to see such hard work go to waste, because the stop-motion animation on display is marvelous, showcasing the talents of Laika’s puppeteers as they push the boundaries of their craft. These movies take a lot of time and effort to make, so you’d think they would have worked a little harder creating a better story with more interesting characters, because while “The Boxtrolls” isn’t so much terrible as it is pedestrian and unmemorable, it’s still a disappointment no matter how you slice it.