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Boxtrolls, The

D: Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable / 97m

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Toni Collette, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Simon Pegg

In the town of Cheesebridge, there is a clear hierarchy in place: there is the Establishment, as represented by Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), who wear white hats as a sign of their social standing and influence; there are the common folk who are poorer by default; and then there are the Boxtrolls, cave-dwelling scavengers who avoid human contact as much as possible.  The Boxtrolls are a curious breed who wear cardboard boxes they can retreat into like tortoises when danger arises, and who have a strange language all their own.  They are feared by the human population of Cheesebridge, and are being hunted down by Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley).  Snatcher’s plan is to rid the town of the Boxtrolls and by doing so, rise up from his humble beginnings and claim a white hat; he has an agreement to this end with Lord Portley-Rind.

Amongst the Boxtrolls is the unexpected presence of a young boy known as Eggs (Wright), who has been raised by them since he was a baby.  Eggs knows both English and the Boxtroll language, and ventures out with them at night to search for scrap they can salvage and turn into something more useful.  While on one such trip, Eggs meets Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Fanning), and her astonishment at seeing him with the Boxtrolls leads her to question why Snatcher is hunting them down.  But with her father unwilling to listen to her, Winnie teams up with Eggs and the Boxtrolls in order to show the people of Cheesebridge that their suspicions and fears about the little creatures are unfounded, and that Snatcher is up to no good.

Snatcher, however, is one step ahead of them.  He devises a machine that threatens both the Boxtrolls’ underground home, as well as Lord Portley-Rind.  Meanwhile, Eggs learns that he’s not a boxtroll and that he’s a child who has long been thought of as disappeared.  While he and Winnie piece together his past – and Snatcher’s part in it – at a prestigious gala, Snatcher steps up his nefarious plan by using his machine to intimidate Lord Portley-Rind into giving him a White Hat.  Only Eggs, Winnie and the Boxtrolls can stop him…

Boxtrolls, The - scene

The latest from Laika Entertainment – they also made Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) – The Boxtrolls is an adaptation of Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!  It’s in keeping with their usual visual approach, an arresting mix of stop-motion animation augmented by CGI and traditional hand-drawn artwork, creating an endlessly fascinating and detailed Victorian-era steampunk aesthetic that keeps the eye transfixed throughout and is uniquely ravishing beneath the surface grime.

It may be a dark, ostensibly moody looking movie, but thanks to Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s clever adaptation – and once the potentially difficult set up of the Boxtrolls’ world is established – the movie reveals a heart and soul that makes it a joy to follow along with, making its cardboard box-wearing stars immediately likeable and endearing.  The Boxtrolls themselves are a lot like a gaggle of unruly schoolchildren, their childlike wonder at the world around them giving them a naiveté that suits their characters and personalities.  Their quirky habits and foibles are rendered with charm and compassion, even when they’re busy playing pranks on each other.  With their innate sensitivity and goodness brought to the fore from the outset, it’s left to the scheming Archibald Snatcher to provide the villainy, and he’s a suitably impressive creation, dextrously voiced by Kingsley, and looking like he’s stepped straight out of one of Dickens’ workhouses.  He’s a gloriously hissable bad guy, and every time his face leers forward it’s like an assault.

Snatcher’s aided by a trio of equally grotesque associates, Mr Trout (Frost), Mr Pickles (Ayoade), and Mr Gristle (Morgan), and as sidekicks they provide some of the more knowing, self-aware humour (watch out for a wonderful pre-end credits piece of post-modernist deconstruction – really).  As the battling youngsters, Eggs and Winnie, both Wright and Fanning offer winning performances, while Harris is instantly recognisable as the straight-laced, luxuriously whiskered Portley-Rind (though viewers may have trouble recognising Collette as his wife).

There’s so much to enjoy in The Boxtrolls it’s almost a struggle to keep up with each new development or piece of background whimsy (like a lot of densely detailed animated features, the movie benefits from repeat viewings), and there are finely tuned moments of anarchic fun in amongst the more darker elements, but thanks to the combined efforts of co-directors Stacchi and Annable the movie achieves a balance that keeps it from tipping over too far in one direction.  From its often remarkable production design courtesy of Paul Lasaine, allied with Curt Enderle’s inspired art direction, the movie looks and feels like a world that’s truly lived in.  The story is involving, and if it all ends a little too predictably, it’s no bad thing.

Rating: 8/10 – another triumph for the folks at Laika, The Boxtrolls is irresistibly charming; exploring further the themes of abandonment and belonging that suffused Coraline and ParaNorman, this is animation that rewards on so many levels it’s almost embarrassing.