Oh what a joy it is, in the age of infinite potential in computer animation, to see a film made using the art of stop-motion, and what an even greater joy to see that the creators of ParaNorman and Coraline have made another. There will always be a unique charm to watching an animated film and knowing that everything in front of the camera is actually there, and not in a computer.
The Boxtrolls, as it’s called, is a very nice film; certainly not only by virtue of the stop-motion. I went to see it in the stead of Big Hero 6, which has not yet seen its Swedish release, and I didn’t feel too bad about it afterwards. I liked its characters, its distinct look, its terrific animation, and just the very thought of enjoying a creative and original fairy tale that doesn’t dumb itself down for the sake of a generation raised on pop culture references and oh so endearing jokes about excrement.
The tale in question is set in a Victorian-type town, which appears to be built on the mountain from Pinchcliffe Grand Prix. Its citizens, whose most valuable resource appears to be cheese, live in constant fear of Boxtrolls, trash-collecting critters that hide inside the boxes they all seemingly use as clothing. Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the town mayor whose rule is signified by his big white hat, is approached by a vile and disgusting exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who vows to destroy all Boxtrolls in exchange for joining Portley-Rind’s ruling society of White Hats. Snatcher himself is a Red Hat, which is apparently not as great.
As we learn more about the Boxtrolls and their secret subterranean world, we also find that amongst them is a human child, called “Eggs” because of the writing on the box he’s been made to wear. He grows into teenager with the voice of Isaac Hempstead-Wright and grows ever curious about the world above the surface. Eggs makes a friend in Lord Portley-Rind’s neglected daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning), who spots him in the streets one night, and soon learns more about where he truly came from and, even worse, what has been done to his Boxtroll friends at the hands of the evil Snatcher. Adventure ensues.
All these characters are wonderful and on top of having instantly memorable designs, the voice acting is all-around spectacular, even if many of the actors are more accustomed to live action parts. Eggs’ long-lost father is voiced by Simon Pegg, and the mother of Winnie is Toni Collette. Snatcher has three goofy henchmen; Nick Frost as the fat and bumbling one, Richard Ayoade as the spindly and timid one, and Tracy Morgan, sounding not one bit like himself, as the short and psychotic one. Dee Bradley Baker voices the Boxtrolls and does a fine job in spite of mostly speaking gibberish.
Of course “star power” must have been in mind when casting these actors but it still seems as though they were selected carefully and that the casting was also based on how beautifully their voices complement the characters and their designs. Special kudos go to Ben Kingsley, whom I did at first not recognize as the gravelly voiced and not too clever-sounding villain, and Elle Fanning, whose name also surprised me when I read the credits. The choices of the actors in this film generally seem much wiser than, say, casting a random pop star as the latest Disney princess.
I’ve already mentioned the splendid animation but not the details and nice touches that make it so nice to look at. The way the city looks, the way its inhabitants are designed, the way that they and the sets they stand in are lit, and of course, the way they’re animated. In ParaNorman, smear models wear used in certain frames to simulate more rapid head movements and such. I don’t know if a similar technique was used in Boxtrolls, but I’d suspect it.
The film didn’t wow me as much as ParaNorman, though, and certainly not as much as Coraline. It’s definitely more child friendly and cute, in multiple ways. But this is still one of this year’s better films, as well as a higher recommendation in the kid’s films category than the depressing likes of Smurfs 2 and Planes: Fire & Rescue. I don’t know if Penguins of Madagascar is as much of a stinker yet, but from what trailers I’ve seen, it feels like we’re about to get another reminder why we need more movies like The Boxtrolls. It’s gorgeous, touching, often exciting and not afraid to get a little scary and, at times, even quite disgusting. I’m looking at you, post-cheese Snatcher.