In between all the typical CG animation features that are released year after year, a small bubble of stop-motion animation films survives. These films aren't plenty, but they have a strong following both in front and behind the camera. The Boxtrolls is the latest in the series and while its stop-motion origins might not be too heavily advertised, it belongs right up there with films like Frankenweenie and Coraline. Fans of stop-motion, rejoice.
Stop-motion may be (moderately) alive and kicking, but it's clearly not where the big money is. Even though these films are expensive to make, you need good marketing power to sell them (Frankenweenie had Burton, Coraline leaned on Gaiman). The Boxtrolls may also be based on a book (Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow), but it lacks the broad recognition to boost ticket sales. So they simply rebranded the film in trailers and other advertising material. Gone are the dark edges, hello family-friendly entertainment.
I expected some kind of childish CG feature reliant on poor comedy and annoying sidekicks, what I got was a fun children's tale with some grim linings and darker moments. The Boxtrolls is not unlike Coraline in that respect, but the marketing department seemed frightened that people would actually find out. They even tried to correct this when they localized the film for international markets, so make sure you get the original dub for an ideal experience.
The film follows Egg, a human child who was brought up amongst boxtrolls (trolls dressed up in boxes). They all live in a cave underground and only come out at night to pick up the trash humans have left behind. Naturally, the people above are scared of the trolls and they are looking to abolish them from their little city. Snatcher and his lowly henchmen vow to get rid of the pest as it will earn them a place in the city council.
Even though the film isn't 100% stop-motion (some CG was used to smooth things out), it's immediately clear that this is not just some regular CG animation flick. The handicraft is unmistakable, giving the characters and its surroundings that much more identity. Annable and Stacchi also had a hefty budget to play around with and it shows. The designs are incredibly detailed, the camera work is spectacular and the sets looks lush, extravagant even. There are even some lavish steampunk-like contraptions at the end of the film that earned it some extra fetish-points.
The soundtrack on the other hand is a little dull and pointless, but not to the point of actually becoming annoying. It's just generic kids movie fodder, though the film gets away with it. The dub on the other hand is amazing. Rather than go for an all-American voice cast, The Boxtrolls went for juicier, more fitting and more amusing English talent. The band of bad guys (Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade) is superb, Simon Pegg and Jared Harris fill out the rest of the cast quite well. In comparison Isaac Hempstead Wright and Elle Fanning fail to reach the same heights, but their characters are lot slicker too, so it's not that big of a deal.
The Boxtrolls is a film aimed at kids, but it's not just a fluffy comedy. There's a slightly darker edge to it that may not align with people's expectations of a children's film. If you're Burton or Gaiman you can get away with that, but when your film doesn't have that same backing and you're dealing with big budget productions, these "risks" tend to be hidden from view until after the audience actually paid to watch the film. I loved this darker edge, but people expecting a pure comedy may be disappointed when going in with the wrong expectations.
On a technical level The Boxtrolls is an absolute masterpiece. The whole film looks lavish from start to finish. The dub is fitting and fun, the story isn't too moralistic (though the underlying message is impossible to ignore) and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. Annable and Stacchi succeeded in making a film that holds a good balance between commercial appeal and artistic integrity and that alone is quite a feat these days.