I have a bit of a mixed reaction to the films of Laika. Whilst they have always shown a great talent for animation, they haven't always had the best stories. Whilst Coraline was excellent, I felt ParaNorman was pretty weak for the most part, despite having an excellent ending. With The Boxtrolls though, Laika are back to the quality they exhibited with Coraline.
The plot concerns the city of Cheesebridge which is allegedly being menaced by creatures known as Boxtrolls with the belief that they have taken a child and eaten him. As a result of this, exterminator Archibald Snatcher persuades the leader of the city, Lord Portly-Rind to give him a White Hat, making him a member of the city leaders, in exchange for him killing all of the Boxtrolls. What we see though is that the Boxtrolls are benevolent creatures who are instinctively cowardly, retreating into their boxes like turtles whenever faced with danger, and have adopted the boy, known as Eggs, as their own. Ten years later, virtually all of the Boxtrolls have been taken by Snatcher and Eggs wants to do something to help. As a result, he goes up to the surface, finding out that the humans vilify the Boxtrolls and say that he was eaten by them. Whilst he is up there he meets Winnie, the daughter of Lord Portly-Rind, and manages to convince her that the Boxtrolls are friendly and they have to convince Lord Portly-Rind of this before Snatcher can kill them all. Throughout the plot, there is this whole idea of acceptance which really works in the film, working alongside the idea that you cannot fully judge people until you have met them, with people viewing Snatcher in a positive light and the Boxtrolls in a negative light, when in reality it's the opposite. There also seems to be a fair few elements of satire of the upper class peppered throughout the film, mainly saying that the upper classes don't care about the needs of ordinary people and spend money on extravagances for themselves rather than things the community genuinely needs. There are a few issues with the plot though, with a few plot holes being seen, one of the big ones being that, despite him growing up with the Boxtrolls who have their own language, Eggs can somehow speak perfect English and, despite them acknowledging this in the film, we never find out how he can speak English which was really distracting to me. Throughout the film there's also a very British sense of humour, mainly there being a lot of elements of Monty Python (aided by Eric Idle writing a song for the film) and Blackadder (through the satire of the upper class) throughout the film in the story whilst the madcap animation filled with a lot of background details reminds me a lot of Aardman. This helps to create a really funny film, able to do gross-out jokes effectively, along with some really witty dialogue and some Andy Zaltzman level puns (which the film acknowledges are groaners) making this a lot of fun to watch.
This is aided by a brilliant cast. Isaac Hempstead-Wright does good work as Eggs, showing his care for the Boxtrolls and how much like a family they are to him. Elle Fanning also does a good job as Winnie, whilst her accent was a bit distracting at first, I got used to it over time and she does a really good job showing her obsession with the Boxtrolls and relishing all of the disgusting details about them. Ben Kingsley is excellent as Snatcher, going all in to his performance being virtually unrecognisable, sounding a lot like Timothy Spall throughout the film. He brilliantly shows the extreme lengths Snatcher will go to in order to gain a White Hat, along with a sense of greed and envy throughout the film, and this performance, mixed with the great writing and animation for him, makes Snatcher one of the best villains in animation. There has been some controversy with Snatcher though, with some calling elements relating to the character dressing as a female performer to spread lies about the Boxtrolls transphobic due to elements later on in the film but this article from The Mary Sue explains why this isn't the case. Jared Harris also gives a good performance as Lord Portly-Rind, showing how he cares more about his position and cheese than his daughter whilst still having a softer side and a deep mistrust of Snatcher whilst Toni Collette as Lady Portly-Rind is completely wasted. Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum are great as the Boxtrolls, mainly Fish and Shoe respectively, with their language for the trolls being a lot of fun to listen to and also letting you know everything that the characters are thinking. There are also good, comedic performances from Tracy Morgan and Simon Pegg (although I won't say more about Pegg for fear of spoiling the film) with the scene-stealers in the comedy department being Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, the dialogue, animation and performances of their characters fit each other perfectly with a lot of the best laughs in the film coming from their performances.
On a technical level, this is probably the best looking stop-motion animated film I've seen. The animation itself is incredible, with the facial expressions and movements of all the characters being handled brilliantly. The background animation is also great, bringing a lot of attention to how well designed Cheesebridge is, showing off the steampunk nature of the film. The film shines though in the gross-out animation, mainly in regards to the Boxtrolls, which are designed to look horrific yet sympathetic at the same time and Snatcher, mainly in the scenes of him trying cheese (which relates to him trying to gain a White Hat as one of the things they do is try rare and exotic cheeses, however Snatcher is violently allergic to cheese) with the film going into great detail of how his allergic reaction to cheese completely distorts his face and arms, which helps to bring the internal ugliness of Snatcher out to the forefront.
Overall, The Boxtrolls is a really enjoyable film. Despite there being a fair few plot issues, the film is consistently funny, really well acted (mainly from Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) and contains quite possibly the best stop-motion animation put to screen and I had a lot of fun watching it.
My Rating: 4/5