Laika studios have quickly become a prolific name in the animation circuit, having helmed acclaimed films such as Coraline and ParaNorman. While I don’t consider them to be near the same level of Pixar, they’ve still made films that are undeniable feats of imagination.
However, ever since their debut with Coralne, it seems all of their follow up films have gotten progressively worse, all culminating in their latest release, The Boxtrolls. Leading up to the film, no one was really sure what it was about, and its enigmatic trailers fascinated us because of it. However, that promise of exceptional things to come turned out to be for naught, being the studio’s most technically masterful, but conceptually paper thin effort.
The problems with the film are immediate. It drops us in the middle of the world with very little context, opening with a sequence intentionally meant to hide a major twist in the film, but backfires in not allowing us breathing room to soak up the atmosphere, and ultimately, the whole film moves at lightning speed with no time to let the surroundings sink in. The characters are not very interesting; especially in the case of one-note lead character Eggs. You’ve seen this clichéd character a thousand times, a fish out of water coming to grips with identity and differing customs, and acting as a bridge between two worlds. There’s nothing new to him.
Because of this, it’s the film’s villain, Archibald Snatcher, who winds up stealing the entire film. Voiced by an unrecognizable Ben Kingsley (you wouldn’t even know it’s him until the credits), this character channels Monty Python vet Terry Jones to create an utterly diabolical and nasty force of nature, manipulating his goodwill with the public to his advantage, and painting the Boxtrolls as vicious monsters to boost his social status. It’s a fantastic, truly engrossing and villainous role that allows Kingsley to joyously sink his teeth into, and he does so with a slight twinge of dark humor.
However, the overall comedy still leaves much to be desired, almost feeling like an exercise of throwing every joke you have into it, whether or not they even work in context. The most standout comic bits come from Elle Fanning as a girl Eggs meets with a disturbingly macabre imagination, and Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade as two morally conflicted henchmen. Outside of that, the comedy feels too inconsistent, trying to channel the quirky likes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (right down to Eric Idle himself penning a major song for the film), but its attempts at homage don’t come across very well, with the most obnoxious gags being frequent cheese puns. This movie seems more obsessed with cheese than Chester Cheetah.
The same can be said of the film’s thematic ideas, which includes the value of materialism defining who you are, the issue of parents not listening to their children (A Laika trope played up to self-parody here), and even the regression into old-fashioned survival tactics rather than adapting. But that’s precisely the problem, the film doesn’t know which of these potentially interesting themes it wants to be its main focus. Honestly, they can’t even be called themes, but merely concepts that aren’t nearly developed enough and are just… cheesy.
However, this is a film that is more impressive in its technical qualities. Everything in the film has been created from scratch, and the very lived in, dirty, and littered production design of the film is done to absolute brilliance. I always have a soft spot for any film made in stop motion, and the designs all across the board are simply fantastic, especially an impressively animated climax. There’s also a beautiful score provided by Dario Marianelli of Atonement fame, and it’s among one of the year’s very best. But besides that, there’s not much to the film. It’s gotten a fair share of buzz for an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but personally, to see it get in over more deserving entries like The Book of Life would be a disappointment.
But in fairness, maybe there’s more beneath the surface that I’m not giving the film credit for. Will the film be more rewarding on rewatches? Will more clever nuances and surprising depth reveal themselves? Does the Wensleydale on my sample tray have a nutty tang to it? I don’t know, BECAUSE I DON’T CARE ABOUT CHEESE!
**1/2 / *****