I’m a lifelong fan of animated cinema, and while I sometimes lament how Pixar-style CG epics have trampled many of the medium’s more traditional methods, I still appreciate the artistry, skill and incredible patience that goes into it. That’s probably why I have an intense love of stop-motion (well, that and all those Ray Harryhausen epics that helped shape my imagination), which is arguably the most time-consuming and meticulous animation technique of them all. Long before fully-rendered digital imagery became the standard, stop-motion features have still been fairly rare over the past few decades; despite the cult popularity of Tim Burton’s gothic masterpiece A Nightmare Before Christmas, the labor- and time-consuming technique of animating puppets or clay figures probably tries the patience of most studio execs. But for me, that makes the arrival of dark fantasy gems like Corpse Bride, Coraline and Frankenweenie all the more special.
LAIKA, the studio behind Coraline and 2012’s Paranorman, are rolling out their latest feature The Boxtrolls, and I’m celebrating all over again. It’s not only their finest achievement to date, but I daresay it’s the most entertaining animated film to be released by a major studio in the past few years. Based on the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, Boxtrolls is the deceptively simple tale of a young boy raised from infancy by the title critters – a kindly but secretive community of blue-skinned, glowing-eyed imps clad in cardboard boxes, who maintain their vast subterranean society by salvaging and re-purposing junk left behind by the oddball citizens of Cheesebridge (a town so named because their entire economy is based on importing exotic cheeses).
The tale itself draws from a deep well of classic tales (Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Dickens’ Oliver Twist come to mind), but the real joy here is in the telling. The world LAIKA has crafted is barely grounded in reality, opting for a highly stylized version of a late-19th-century European town that’s still making the transition from steam power to electricity (providing for some memorable steampunk set-pieces, including a towering coal-fueled robot), but it’s a touch more down-to-earth than Neil Gaiman’s surreal dreamworld depicted in Coraline. The elaborate sets – a combination of intricate models and digital artwork – seem to stretch on endlessly, and every nook and cranny is stuffed with weird little details: for example, the trolls’ underground city is a Rube Goldberg explosion of improvised machinery and flickering electric lights; Cheesebridge’s winding cobblestone streets (with pun-filled names like “Curds Way”) seem to defy gravity, twisting back on each other and folding into rooftops like an M.C. Escher landscape. The depth of detail is enhanced by quality 3D photography (not post-converted), which creates some dizzying moments, including an insane chase across city rooftops.
Of course, the lion’s share of the credit goes to the character animation team: the incredibly detailed puppets are sculpted with exaggerated facial and body features, decked out in highly detailed period costumes and rendered in high-contrast shades, reminiscent of hyper-stylized silent classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The young hero “Eggs” falls closer to the softer, more traditional style usually reserved for child characters – which is probably a smart choice, as kids should identify with the likable leads. While played mostly for broad laughs, the characters’ faces cover the full spectrum of emotions, and the little nuances of their expressions are amazing to watch.
Accompanying this visual smorgasbord is one of the best voice casts I’ve heard in years: Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley rules them all in a mad, campy performance as the scenery-chewing villain Archibald Snatcher, who bamboozles the town’s moronic, cheese-obsessed elders into hiring him to eliminate the Boxtrolls; his musical number in absolutely hideous drag as a shrieking diva is totally hilarious (and a bit terrifying, if you ask me). Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones) plays Eggs (named by the trolls after the egg crate he was found in), while other standout roles include Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg & Nick Frost and 30 Rock‘s Tracy Morgan as Snatcher’s addled sidekicks; Elle Fanning (Maleficent) nabs some of the film’s biggest laughs as the cute but morbidly curious Winnie, daughter of the dairy-obsessed Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). Intricate sound design and a darkly whimsical score, plus song lyrics by Monty Python’s Eric Idle, add the final touches to this eccentric, comically macabre little universe.
With Halloween just around the corner, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It’s got nostalgic references and knowing in-jokes to warm the hearts of classic horror fans; it’s packed with enough wild action, playful music and comic pratfalls to delight young ones (though maybe not too young – there are some shocking moments, including Snatcher’s monstrous allergic reaction to cheese); and it’s laced with tons of irreverent, macabre and droll humor for the grownups – including a surprising share of bodily-function and gross-out jokes and a wonderfully subtle meta-moment during the credits that actually got a round of applause. The Boxtrolls is not only the year’s best animated feature, but it’s sure to be a perennial favorite among fans of vintage horror and dark fantasy. It may give you a case of whiplash (and possibly put you off your cheese), but you’ll enjoy every minute of it.