I’ve come to feel that stop-motion animated films need to be graded on their own scale, separate both from films in general but particularly from computer animated movies. Partly that’s due to the simple fact that so few stop-motion films are released anymore; The Boxtrolls is the only one due in 2014, while there are at least 10 major studio computer animated movies set to come out this year. In fact, while seemingly every studio is eager for a computer animated hit, there are very few sources of stop-motion animation, mainly consisting of Laika and Aardman Animations (with an occasional film from Tim Burton when he feels like it). In the last five years and despite producing only three films, Laika has set itself apart as a film studio with a vision, making interesting, unique films like Coraline and ParaNorman. With The Boxtrolls, it has solidified its place with the likes of Pixar as a studio that makes movies of the highest quality and vision which demand to be seen, and whose involvement with a film is more important than voice casts, writers or directors in attracting my interest.
The Boxtrolls, based on the book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, tells the story of the town of Cheesebridge, whose citizens live in fear of the Boxtrolls, small monsters who live underground and come out at night to steal objects from the town. One day a baby boy disappears from the town and the Boxtrolls are accused of kidnapping and eating him, after which the Boxtrolls become hunted and start to decrease in number as some are captured each night as they search for things to steal. However, the baby boy wasn’t eaten at all, but was instead raised by the Boxtrolls to be one of them, learning their ways and growing up watching his friends and family slowly disappear. The man responsible for capturing the Boxtrolls, Archibald Snatcher, has struck a deal with the town’s leaders and will not rest until every last Boxtroll has been eliminated.
The Boxtrolls are so named because of the boxes they wear at all times, as though boxes were shells and the Boxtrolls were turtles, and are far from what the citizens of Cheesebridge imagine. They do come above ground at night to steal, but they only steal broken or discarded items, which they take to their homes in order to build elaborate devices. They’re tinkerers, using other people’s junk as their treasure, and they treat the boy (whom they call “Eggs” after the egg box he wears) as a member of the family. They teach him how to tinker, and he spends many a happy evening with his surrogate father, Fish, making inventions to create music. As their numbers dwindle, however, he has a chance encounter with a girl of his own age, Winnie, whose father is one of the town’s leaders. They are intrigued by each other, as he’s never met another human, and she can’t come to understand how a boy could be living with the Boxtrolls (and think he is one of them). Together, the two set out to save the Boxtrolls, uncovering Snatcher’s evil plans and exposing the town’s underlying prejudices.
The Boxtrolls is actually a film all about prejudice, particularly as it more broadly applies to classism. Cheesebridge is distinctly divided into two classes: the White Hats who run the town despite having seemingly no justification for their powers, and the Red Hats who are the bulk of the town. Snatcher is a Red Hat who desperately dreams of moving up to a White Hat, so much so that he’s willing to kill all of the Boxtrolls to do it. But the Boxtrolls make up the third, lower class, who are ignored or feared by the middle and upper class. The film has a lot to say about the way classes function in our society, from the unhealthy urge for advancement, to the callous indifference of those with power, to the ease with which the middle class can be manipulated to help a few, to the way symbols and even clothing can be used to turn individuals into a stereotype. And while I’m sure someone will eventually write a paper someday breaking down every aspect of the film as a social critique, to do so would be to reduce the film to a mere symbol and would lose the heart at its core.
The relationship between Winnie and Eggs drives the film, as both try to not only work out who they wish to stake their place in society, but to shape that world into one where everyone is free to be themselves. Along the way they question many of the truths they grew up believing, and of all the town’s inhabitants they’re the only ones who seem capable of looking past the surface and seeing what lies beneath. Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Elle Fanning are pitch-perfect as the voices of Eggs and Winnie, bringing a sweetness that is nicely offset by their rebellious inclinations. Ben Kingsley is deliciously villainous as Snatcher, chewing the scenery in a way that must have been a joy to animate. The rest of the cast is filled with some familiar voices, although the standouts among the supporting players have to be Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade as Snatcher’s henchmen, who constantly struggle to figure out whether they’re the good guys or the bad guys of the story through existential conversations.
Stop-motion animation will never feel as fresh and modern as computer animation, and it would be foolish to try. The length of time required to make a stop-motion film, combined with the inherent limitations of filming visuals created entirely by hand leaves films of the position of running counter to what people are used to with animation. The visuals aren’t polished, shiny, or familiar, they’re grubby and dark and different. There are no pop culture references or double entedres designed to entertain the parents while kids are absorbed by pretty lights and colors. Instead, stop motion gives us something exquisitely crafted and tactile, something that feels real despite its exaggerated appearance. Laika has made it quite clear with their trailers for The Boxtrolls the level of effort that goes into a film of this sort (and it’s echoed in a clever scene during the film’s credits), and that effort bleeds into every frame of the film. The story may not be the most unique, even if it’s a good one, but the film’s craftsmanship makes it feel alive, from the look and feel of the sets to the design of the Boxtrolls, which are both sweetly cute and creepy at the same time. There’s plenty of humor and silliness to be found that should please kids, but the artistry is what sets The Boxtrolls apart.
I hope The Boxtrolls is a success, if for no other reason than my desire to see Laika succeed and survive. Laika seems to relish the challenges that come with their chosen film medium, and they seem to be consistently striving to raise the bar with each film they create when most other companies are happy to simply coast. But beyond an individual company, I want this film to succeed because I feel like there needs to be a place for stop-motion animation in the pantheon of modern cinema. It’s unlike anything we see onscreen today, in ways both obvious and not. And with so few players in the industry, the failure of The Boxtrolls could become a huge hurdle to future creations of stop-motion. No other type of film can capture the bizarre, macabre, and offbeat sensibilities of the weird places in our minds the way stop-motion does, while being simultaneously charming and meaningful. We’ve moved a long way past the days of “Claymation,” and even if The Boxtrolls is still just a niche film, it’s an important niche, and one which The Boxtrolls fills perfectly.