It was (and is) time- and labor-intensive, requiring the skills of hundreds, if not several thousand crafts people to conceptualize and create everything from sets to clothing, all in miniature. Ray Harryhausen didn’t pioneer stop-motion animation (Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen’s mentor, was among the first), but he perfected the process (or as close as perfecting the process was possible during his five decade-long career), but when he retired, no one, individually or collectively, rushed in to fill the void, in essence relegating stop-motion animation to the technological past or occasional one-offs like Henry Selick’s TheNightmare Before Christmas or James and the Giant Peach. It was Selick who brought Coraline, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s bestselling, Goth-flavored, outsider-centered YA novel, to Portland, Oregon-based Laika owned and operated by Phil Knight (of Nike fame or infamy, depending on your perspective). In turn, the success of Coraline in 2009 led to an entirely in-house production (from script to screen), ParaNorman, another Goth-influenced, supernatural tale.
If two Goth-influenced supernatural films didn’t constitute a pattern, Laika’s third film, The Boxtrolls, loosely inspired by Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters!,” certainly does. Centered on a preteen outsider/orphaned boy, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright), and a bizarre, steampunk-influenced world inhabited by mischievous, underground dwelling, box-wearing trolls. Their Otherness make them the targets for elimination by the cheese-obsessed elders who run the appropriately named Cheesebridge, an early 19th-century Middle-European city slowly falling into ruin due to the intransigence, selfishness, and myopia of those same elders. They ignore the city’s actual needs (e.g., infrastructure, hospitals, schools) for their own petty desires. They’re wealthy, but willfully blind and ignorant, making them easy marks for The Boxtrolls’ central villain, Archibald Snatcher (a hammily effective Ben Kingsley), a genocidal exterminator with an advanced degree in sowing FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). Snatcher wants what the village elders have: power, prestige, and possessions. And a white hat that only the village elders are allowed to wear.
The Boxtrolls are, of course, misunderstood. They might not be X-Men-style mutants with mutant powers, but the metaphor still applies. They’re feared and persecuted, not for what they do, but for their physical appearance — and, to be fair, their hygiene habits (or lack thereof). Their grossness and disgusting culinary habits, however, make them a hard sell for family-oriented audiences. In their anarchic, introspective behavior, incomprehensible speech, collective obsession with building machines from the upper world’s detritus, they’re essentially children minus discipline-instilling, imagination-squashing authority/parental figures. That also makes them an easy target for Snatcher and his minions, a trio of bumblers, two of whom maintain a running, meta-dialogue about the nature of heroism and villainy (they imagine themselves as the heroes of the story, but growing doubts beegin to suggest otherwise).
Eggs — so called because he wears a box with the word “eggs” — becomes the hero in response to Snatcher’s actions, eventually acquiring an ally in the Winnie (Elle Fanning), the daughter of Cheesebridge’s ever-distracted chief elder, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). Together, they learn to overcome class and cultural differences, respect each other’s worldviews, and save the Boxtrolls when Snatcher’s plans to use the elimination of the Boxtrolls inch closer to fruition. Narratively, The Boxtrolls borrows ideas, themes, and tone from any number of influences, including (but not limited to) Charles Dickens (themes, characters, world building), Roald Dahl (themes, characters, world building), and even Monty Python (in casting, dialogue, and in at least one case, a direct reference). The outsider-centered narrative and pleas for tolerance (both found in Coraline and ParaNorman) suggest, however, that sameness has creeped into Laika’s approach to storytelling. Nothing is permanent, of course. Laika’s next effort (or the one after that, given how long stop-motion animation takes) can easily break free of that format.
As expected, Laika’s stop-motion animators fill the screen with close calls, chases, and all manner of visual wit and elaborately choreographed set pieces (the camera is rarely, if ever static). Given the time and labor involved, it’s all the more impressive. The obsessive attention to detail, from the smallest background element to the largest foreground one, is evident in every single frame, making repeated revisits of The Boxtrolls a near-must for animation fans. That’s assuming, however, that those same animation fans won’t be put off by The Boxtrolls’ character designs, a possibility given Laika’s tendency to indulge their production team’s tastes for the physically grotesque. For example, Snatcher’s spindly legs, bloated abdomen, and hawk-visage make for a singularly distasteful villain. Apparently, Laika wouldn’t want it any other way.