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With: (voices) Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Toni Collette, Simon Pegg, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Max Mitchell, Maurice LaMarche, James Urbaniak, Brian George, Lori Tritel, Laraine Newman
Written by: Irena Brignull, Adam Pava, based on a novel by Alan Snow
Directed by: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
MPAA Rating: PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor
Running Time: 97
Date: 09/26/2014

The Boxtrolls (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Outside the 'Box'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The San Francisco Film Critics Circle, of which I am a founding member, added a Best Animated Feature award in 2009, and of the five awards we've given to date, one went to a Pixar film, one went to a Disney film, and two of them went to Laika films, Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). Laika is located just outside of Portland, Oregon, and focuses on stop-motion animation, and like Pixar, the studio itself has a kind of filmic personality, no matter who works on the films. The two directors of their third release, The Boxtrolls, are Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi; Annable was a story/storyboard artist on the previous films and makes his directorial debut here, whereas Stacchi had never worked with Laika before. Yet The Boxtrolls has many of the hallmarks of the previous films; bizarre angles, strange-looking characters, and a kind of fearlessness, an ability to gaze at darkness head-on.

Based on the book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, The Boxtrolls is probably funnier and less fixated on death than the previous two. Set in a town located entirely on the windy sides of a pointy, cockeyed mountain, it introduces us to the boxtrolls. Though feared and hated by all the citizens, they surface mainly at night, and mainly to rummage through the trash for discarded treasures, clocks, toasters, etc. In their underground dwelling, they re-purpose all the junk and put it to work again. The boxtrolls all wear boxes and are named after the writing on their individual boxes. A human boy, "Eggs" (voiced by newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright), has been raised by a boxtroll named "Fish" as well as the other boxtrolls. The boxtrolls only speak in weird little sounds, but Eggs can understand them. He knows no other family and has never been to the surface.

Meanwhile, above the city is run by the "white hats," or, basically, a group of people wealthy enough to afford white hats. They're supposed to make decisions for their constituents, but mainly they just taste fine cheeses. The leader is Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), who pays no attention whatsoever to his daughter, Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning). A horrible villain, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Ben Kingsley), dearly wants a white hat and makes a deal with Portley-Rind: if he wipes out all the boxtrolls, he gets to join the white hats.

So boxtrolls begin disappearing, and this prompts Eggs' first appearance to the surface, where he meets Winnie and kicks the plot into gear. Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan play Snatcher's hilarious henchmen, and Toni Collette and Simon Pegg turn up as well.

The movie has several kid-friendly themes, such as the question of family. Winnie explains the loose concept of the idea of a "father," even though her own father does not live up to any of the basic tenets. Whereas Eggs' "adopted" father Fish fits the bill nicely, except for the fact that he's not human. Secondly, Eggs must teach the boxtrolls to take action when action is required, rather than letting terrible things happen to them. Conversely, Snatcher very desperately goes after the thing he wants, even though, ironically, he's allergic to cheese and can't really join the cheese-tasting meetings (the animation of his various puffing and swelling may be the movie's most disturbing material).

But the biggest theme is one of class struggle, and the fact that the wealthy control everything. Snatcher is just as vile as the white hats, but he doesn't belong to them because of his lower status. Part of their control is the conjuring up of needless fear of the boxtrolls. Eric Idle contributed a hilarious anti-boxtroll song, which is sung in a public square with much fanfare. (I'm hoping that Idle gets an Oscar nomination for Best Song.)

Visually and aurally, the movie is exceptional. I love the way vehicles -- or other quickly moving (sometimes out-of-control) objects -- move down the twisty streets, and the way that shadows are used, not to mention the beautiful underground boxtroll lair. One sequence, a comical ballroom dance, reportedly stretched the Laika facilities to their very limits, requiring the entire shooting schedule of 18 months to finish a 2-minute scene.

With so many funny people involved, the movie is doubtlessly funny. It finds a perfect rhythm and sustains all this stuff for a well-paced 97 minutes. It even ends with a delightfully "meta" exploration of the stop-motion world. But I can't help thinking that it's the tiniest measure of a step down from Coraline and ParaNorman. Those movies seemed especially profound with their embracing of sadness and their acceptance of death, whereas the themes of The Boxtrolls don't reach quite so high. However, this could be the old "comedy" vs. "drama" argument, with drama always winning as the more acceptable of the two, irrespective of anything.

The only other thing I should mention is that, like the previous two films, The Boxtrolls isn't quite as cuddly as normal kid fare, and if your child is a little bit squeamish (mine couldn't handle ParaNorman), it's best proceed with caution.

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