In a world of CGI animation where everything looks pretty much the same, Laika Studios make extremely polished, labour-intensive stop-motion films with an unique look- perhaps that’s why the company has generally promoted its craft more than its stories. Indeed, when I think of „Coraline” or „Paranorman”, the first thing that pops into mind are behind-the-scenes featurettes displaying the hard work of Laika animators, model-makers and all other kinds of crafts professionals from puppet-hairdressers to mini-sweater-knitters.
It’s hard to find any fault with the quality of Laika animation and the effort that goes into it, and I love hearing about how it’s made. In terms of story, though, both of their first two features left me a bit disappointed. It’s not that they were not interesting, all the contrary. The problem was one of tone- the filmmakers didn’t seem brave enough to take their concepts far enough, but the films were nevertheless too unusual to be written off as regular kids’movies, the result being a slight feeling that Laika had not quite decided what was their intended audience. I was very curious to see whether their third film would embrace the weirdness more or try to fit the conventional „mainstream animated movie” shoes better.
So now the much-anticipated „Boxtrolls” is here, and it does seem to aim more squarely for the „family movie” label: the tone is more explicitly comedic, and the story is full of genre tropes- we have a boy with absent parents as a protagonist, a spunky little girl as his sidekick (which reminded me of „Hugo”), a large number of funny small creatures goofing around (which reminded me of „Despicable Me”) and over-the-top, incompetent villains who talk too much and expose their plans to whoever is willing to listen. The plot revolves Eggs, a boy who was raised underground by the Boxtrolls. Harmless, shy creatures who live inside boxes at all times and love collecting and assembling all sorts of mechanical gadgets, the Boxtrolls are wrongly stigmatised as child-eating monsters by the humans from the city above them, and even hunted by dastardly exterminators, and so Eggs, who for some reason speaks perfect English even though he grew up amongst a species who doesn’t, takes it upon himself to save them and plead their cause. There is a fair amount of falling and running around, there are heart-warming speeches, and the villain’s henchmen are hilarious, in classic cartoon tradition.
This doesn’t mean that Laika have renounced their characteristic dark touches. A story about little creatures who walk around in boxes under a town called Cheesebridge sounds like the epitome of whimsy, but in fact, the sets look like they could be recycled for a „Jack the Ripper” film without many changes, complete with moody night-time lighting, and the vibe all throughout „The Boxtrolls” could be described as Dickens-ian without any irony. (Not to mention that everybody has, or is attempting, a British accent.) The main source of conflict is class struggle, as embodied by the working-class Boxtroll exterminator Archibald Snatcher, whose despicable actions are motivated by his desire to join the distant, dumb aristocracy led by the Cheesebridge mayor. With Snatcher in particular, the animators are really indulging their taste for making us cringe: his cheese allergy is painful to look at, and so is his musical number in drag, although for different reasons. „The Boxtrolls” is a skillfully made film, but it’s rarely „pretty” to look at, even if the animation is incredibly detailed and smooth.
As I said before, in my view, Laika’s main problem was getting the tone right, and I have to say that this film doesn’t nail it either- it’s still all over the place, in fact, even more so than in „Coraline” or „Paranorman”. The main theme, stated as early as the first teaser, is „family comes in all shapes and sizes”, but it is often undermined by the other weird things happening on the screen, many of which make little sense when looking back at the plot, and the titular Boxtrolls are kind of a footnote in their own story.
I probably sound harsher on the movie than I really mean to be- I did enjoy watching it, it’s just that Laika productions always sound so ambitious and look so good in previews that I am naturally going to expect more from them than from the average animated feature. They are so close to greatness, it’s frustrating to see that they don’t quite manage to get there. But one day they will. Come on, Laika, you can do it.