Animation studio Laika isn’t just on the cutting edge of stop-motion animation. They’re also the only studio putting out offbeat stories that unabashedly focus and celebrate true outsiders. They make movies that are cute without being cutesy, strange without being self-conscious, and funny without being pandering. Their latest film, The Boxtrolls, is by far their best yet as they’ve created a rich, gorgeous world filled with adorable characters, remarkable detail, and a clever comment on propaganda, which is ambitious for a movie that’s ostensibly a family film. Laika may have made a name for themselves with Coraline and ParaNorman, but The Boxtrolls feels like the first movie that represents the heart and soul of this oddball studio.
In the town of Cheesebridge, a baby goes missing and a fabled race of creatures known as “boxtrolls” are held responsible for his disappearance. The sleazy Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) wants to break into high society, so he cuts a deal with the town’s leader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris): Snatcher will exterminate the boxtrolls, and in return he’ll get a “White Hat”, which represents acceptance into the aristocracy. Rather than being the flesh-hungry monsters they’re purported to be, the boxtrolls are friendly group of scavengers and builders who have adopted the child, raised him as one of their own, and named him “Eggs” (Isaac Hempstead Wright), since they’re all named after the box carton they wear. As Snatcher and his befuddled henchmen kidnap more and more boxtrolls, Eggs decides to fight back only to learn that he’s not a boxtroll, but a boy, and must choose between the two worlds.
Coraline and ParaNorman were visually delightful, but they don’t hold a candle to the majesty of The Boxtrolls. Cheesbridge feels like a world truly made from scratch as directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi take us across the various areas of the town including Snatcher’s lair, Portley-Rind’s luxurious mansion, and the boxtrolls’ underground home where everything has been built from leftover parts. The level of details permeates every aspect of the picture right down to the costumes where we can see “Red Hat” stitched into the back of Snatcher’s coat, an almost cruel reminder of his station in life and how he’ll do anything to escape it.
Laika has always sided with outsiders, but boxtrolls is the first movie to put its characters at the mercy of others. Like ParaNorman, the conflict is built largely on a misunderstanding, but this time the misunderstanding is fermented by Snatcher to where he even manages to mislead his henchmen, who believe they’re the good guys. It’s easy to ride to power on the backs of an unrepresented group that doesn’t have the power to fight back. Additionally, the boxtrolls aren’t cuddly in the traditional sense. They’re filthy, a pallid shade of gray, and they also eat bugs.
But they’re also some of the most endearing characters I’ve seen in a movie this year. Part of their appeal comes from their gibberish speak, which is vaguely reminiscent of how the minions talk in the Despicable Me movies. However, Laika has also distinguished the boxtrolls with distinct communication and interests that make it feel like a culture rather than just a bunch of weird characters. When they want to show approval, they clap their hands against their boxes. When they scavenge for an item, they want a particular part rather than the whole piece. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that a studio comprised of artisans made their heroes a collection of builders and tinkerers.
At its current rate of production, we should get a new Laika film every 2-3 years, and while that’s much slower than DreamWorks Animation or even Pixar, the company’s creative growth has been phenomenal, both in their artistry and their storytelling. Even if The Boxtrolls isn’t particularly deep in its narrative (past the propaganda subtext, it’s about being yourself and not governed by your fears), the film is an embarrassment of riches full of delightful characters in a gorgeous, unique setting. I can’t wait to see where Laika takes us next, but I wouldn’t be opposed to returning to Cheesebridge and its wonderful residents.