Laika, the Portland, Oregon-based stop motion animation studio, has never had an out-of-the-box commercial smash. Their first two films, Henry Selick's "Coraline" and the delicate "ParaNorman," were critically adored, but neither opened above the number three slot on their debut weekends (both went on to earn over $100 million worldwide). Maybe it was the wickedly dark, supernatural subject matter, or the fact that the animation style, a combination of the cutting edge and creaky, is out of fashion, with audiences still preferring the shiny blandness of CGI. Their third feature "The Boxtrolls" feels like the studio's surest bid towards mainstream acceptance, which is weird considering it's also the studio's most confrontationally strange. And we mean that in a good way.
"The Boxtrolls" is ostensibly based on a small sliver of Alan Snow's loopy children's book "Here Be Monsters," and concerns the titular characters who leave their subterranean dwelling to dig for odds and ends left behind in the pseudo-Victorian town of Cheesebridge. Some of the human inhabitants, among them a gentleman of high standing (Jared Harris), feel threatened by the boxtrolls, especially after a young boy goes missing. While most of the town assumes the boxtrolls ate him, the boy is in fact an orphan, and they raise him as one of their own. They call him Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright from "Game of Thrones") and teach him how to become a proper boxtroll, but when an out-of-control exterminator (languidly voiced by Ben Kingsley) threatens to exterminate the boxtrolls for good, Eggs has to leave his new underground home behind or watch it disappear completely.
At first, it's impossible not to simply marvel at the world that Laika has created (under the surefooted direction of Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi). Early in the movie, the boxtrolls escape from the sewers and scamper around in the human world, their eyes burning like warm embers. The characters are designed like oil paintings, with streaky smudges of color dotting their skin and with large, expressive features, the best of which belong to a young human girl named Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning) who assists Eggs in his quest. The boxtrolls' environment resemble Pythonesque doodles, and the whole town is perched on the top of a cliff, suggesting German expressionism and the work of Tim Burton all at once. And by the time the movie reaches its bombastic climax, the filmmakers have judiciously folded in elements of steampunk and gross-out horror. It's truly unlike anything you've ever seen before, which is striking given especially the film's intended audience are kids. The movie goes to some truly dark and occasionally terrifying places, and just like any good movie about monsters, it's not the creatures who are the most fearsome; it's the humans that are really chilling.
But as visually dazzling as "The Boxtrolls" is, it's also pretty thematically profound. When the first teaser for the film was released, it noted that there are many different types of families, including some led by same-sex parents. And the most touching and affecting moments of the film come after the introduction, when scenes between Eggs and his boxtroll parents Fish and Shoe unfold organically. The closeness between the characters is heartwarming and unique: not for a moment do you think about the two boxtrolls being male (or another species altogether). While it's easy to associate boxtrolls with homosexuals, the movie has grander ambitions: it's not just about homosexual parents, but any kind of family unit that defies societal "norms." We can't wait until Fox News and similarly conservative outlets decide to pick the film apart for its assault on family values when, in fact, it is just reinforcing those selfsame values in new and unexpected ways. "The Boxtrolls" suggests that challenging children's preconceived notion of gender roles and family dynamics at an earlier age will help them become better people, and it's hard to disagree. That's just one way to read "The Boxtrolls," as some have drawn comparisons between the film's plot (concerning a megalomaniacal power's attempt to wipe a marginalized race off the face of the earth, in a film set in Europe, no less) and the atrocities of World War II. Essentially, there are more than a few ways to unpack the themes.
There are a few stumbles along the way, and "The Boxtrolls" succeeds almost exclusively in its inner layers (as opposed to its narrative cohesiveness). Nothing makes a whole lot of sense in "The Boxtrolls;" it operates in its own topsy-turvy internal logic. There's lots of talk of cheese and hats and giant mechanized monsters, which can be ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. The film's pacing could have used some refinement —with a movie filled with this much stuff, the lulls could have been better calibrated and more evenly spread out. And an attempt to weave in some kind of backstory concerning Eggs and his wacky inventor father (played by Simon Pegg) ultimately falls flat. Since the entire movie is about a young boy's relationship with his boxtroll buddies, the idea of forcing a sentimentalized family reunion is grosser than what happens to Kingsley's character when he eats cheese (it's not pretty).
Whether or not "The Boxtrolls" signals Laika's big breakthrough obviously remains to be seen, but that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme. Their films are esoteric wonders that fully defy the general etiquette of animated features —they're loose, wild and barely contained. But they're also incredibly emotional, beautiful and resonant. "The Boxtrolls" is charming, with a gorgeous animation style that combines lo-fi with high-tech (the puppets were printed using 3D printers), with the huggable nature of the characters, and with the boldness of its storytelling and thematic concerns. With any luck, there's probably a little boxtroll in all of us. [A-]