I’m not quite sure how The Boxtrolls scored an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Perhaps it was purely on the basis of the stop motion craftsmanship, rather than the film as a whole? It’s good news for Laika, the studio behind it, which is three-for-three in Academy Awards nods (or four-for-four, including their contract work on Corpse Bride), but in terms of storytelling they’re suffering diminishing returns.
Perhaps this is explained by the quality of the source material of their first feature, Coraline. Certainly, it’s way out in front of both this and Paranorman. And Paranorman is superior in turn to The Boxtrolls. Based on Alan Snow’s 2006 novel Here Be Monsters!, Graham Annable and Antony Stacchi’s movie (from a screenplay by Travis Knight and David Ichioka) concerns the attempts to exterminate the titular creatures from the town of Cheesebridge. Take a wild guess as to its most prolific product; the fromage-based gags are actually one of the picture’s better features.
Laika have been bigged up as a progressive studio, but their commentary on prejudice and class boundaries here is as subtle as an Edam brick. The trolls are made out to be child-eating monsters, pursued by pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone judges by appearances, and beneath their grotesque, grunting exteriors lurk hearts of gold. They raise a boy named Eggs (Game of Thrones’ Isaac Henpstead-Wright) as their own and, equipped with his very own troll box, he believes himself to be one of their kind (somehow, Eggs also develops the ability to speak human). The Boxtrolls are merely the lowest rung of the class ladder. Their oppressor, Snatcher, longs to sit at high (cheese) table with the council of White Hats who run Cheesebridge. He has been dangled the carrot of his very own white hat if he rids the town of Boxtrolls.
On the council is Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), a remote and absent father whose stuck-up daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) becomes entangled in the fates of Eggs and the Boxtrolls. This is fairly crude stuff, perfectly admirable in terms of moral lessons, but too schematic to really have a heart. Eggs isn’t just an orphan urchin, but the offspring of the town’s greatest inventor, one of such estimable character that he made friends and entertained the Boxtrolls while other shunned them. The picture is too nice to really have any teeth beneath its surface level fascination with bodily function jokes and utterly evil schemes; none of the trolls have been exterminated after all, and Eggs’ dad is perfectly all right (well, as much as he can be voiced by Simon Pegg).
While the stop-motion animation is very good, there’s something possible a bit too polished about it, as if the edges have been rubbed off. It’s no wonder some have mistaken it for CGI (particularly when studios have gone down the route of producing CGI animations in stop-motion style). There’s a grotesquery to the designs that, the Snatcher aside, comes across as rather generic and lacking in flair. Added to this, the colour palate is unremittingly dull and muddy, as if Laika are intent on sucking all vitality from the screen.
If the technical side is accomplished, it’s rarely matched by the onscreen antics, then. There’s one absolute standout, and that’s Ben Kingsley’s villainous voice work as Snatcher. It’s one to cherish, up there with his OTT characters in Sexy Beast and Iron Man Three, and the animators are clearly enthused by the opportunity to add body to the part. Snatcher is visualised with more than a touch of Timothy Spall by way of Gerald Scarfe, complete with an allergic reaction to cheese that causes him to hallucinate; the latter owes a debt to Eddie Murphy’s rubbery transformations in Nutty Professor.
Kingsley relishes Snatcher’s malicious glee, and the exaggeration of his character is the closest Boxtrolls comes to Roald Dahl-esque black comedy (with a bit of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life thrown in for his explosive demise). The makers are careful even here, however, offering Snatcher redemption (“They don’t make you. You make you,” pleads Eggs/the Trubshaw Baby, addressing the illusory nature of Snatcher’s sought-after acceptance by high society).
Kingsley also has the chance to double up, as Madame Frou-Frou Snatcher’s anti-Boxtroll propaganda spouting alter ego. That Lord Portley-Rind finds Frou-Frou alluring is typical of picture that only goes in obvious directions, however (“Oh my God, I regret so much” he comments on learning the truth). They’ve even cast Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade as henchmen, whose initially clever dialogue (“You really think these Boxtrolls understand the duality of good and evil?”) grows stale. Even the meta- discussion at the end is a bit of a fizzle.
It isn’t unusual for the villains or supporting characters in an animation to be the strongest part of the picture, but in The Boxtrolls the leads are particularly weak. There isn’t much to them, aside from tapping into kids’ fascination with vulgarity (wee jokes, bare bottoms, eating grubs, regurgitating food). I’m not sure if the stiffy joke at the end was intentional (one of the now-naked trolls holds out a remote control in a suggestive position), but it wouldn’t be a surprise (there are gags about scratching one’s privates).
Stop motion animation can find wide audiences, as Aardman has proved, if not nearly as wide as CGI, but Laika appears to be ploughing a perversely narrow path of over-earnest moralising, unattractive design work and charmless characterisation. If their storytelling were up to the standard of their technique, they’d be bagging the Best Animated Picture Oscar every time.