There is something pleasingly, imaginatively dark in the drinking water at animation studio Laika, whose latest stop motion release The Boxtrolls (based on the book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow) follows in much the same storytelling vein as its previous films Coraline and Paranorman, both of which were firmly rooted in the idea that children are as apt to inhabit the macabre and the creepy as they are the sweet and the saccharine.
While many of today’s wonderfully-executed animated movies inhabit the latter sphere with limited feints into the realm of the former, Laika is happy to straddle both, cognisant of the fact that the lightness and joy of a happy ending only really makes profound emotional strength, whether you’re a child or an adult, if something truly evil or frightening has authentically imperilled it along the way.
In that respect films like The Boxtrolls resemble the Disney films of old such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and perennially-popular classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from which The Boxtrolls draws more than a little lovingly-articulated inspiration, most notably in the presence of its villain, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who bears more than a passing resemblance and spiritual connection to the Child Catcher (Sir Robert Helpmann) of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Archibald Snatcher is an altogether unpleasant man, and while he is given some vaudevillian-comic touches such as the grotesquely-humourous physical way he reacts to the consumption of cheese, he is by and large a man driven by avarice, greed and desire, a character who you could quite clearly believe would be capable of murdering someone if he saw it as a means of reaching his much-coveted end which is the acquisition of a tall white feathered hat, the symbol of power and status accorded to the higher-echelon members of Cheesebridge, a medieval town clinging to the precipitous slopes of a pinnacle-like hill.
With that piece of finely-wrought millinery, he will allowed to attend the meetings of the Cheese Guild, the ruling body of Cheesebridge who are charged with raising funds for childrens’ schools and hospitals and “crumbling bridges” but who in reality end up spending their days and nights self-indulgently eating cheese – it appears this is all the inhabitants of this charmingly gothic town eats – and almost criminally using the funds they raise on self-important projects such as a giant cheese puntastically-named “Brie-hemoth”.
Self-interested to the last man (no women are allowed to attend the meetings themselves, consigned to the endless balls the Guild loves to hold), their leader Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) only engages with the slimy personage of Archibald Childcatcher when he promises to rid the town of a much-feared pestilence, the Boxtrolls, a race of sweetly innocent box-clad tinkering beings (they take their names from the labels on their cardboard wear) who emerge at night to take all manner of mechanical objects, some broken, some not, which they conjure into all manner of magical creations down in their fairy light-garlanded, cluttered and bug-infested subterranean cavern.
Possessed of a much-maligned reputation as murderers, child-eaters and kidnappers, they leave the good but poorly-informed and prone to scurrilous paranoia citizens of Cheesebridge in deathly fear on a nightly basis, save for the plucky if a little fearful daughter of Lord and Lady Portly-Rind (Toni Collette), Winnie (Elle Fanning) who while afraid, is also ghoulishly fascinated by the reputedly gruesome creatures of the night.
They are of course thoroughly undeserving of their grossly-exaggerated and utterly fictitious reputation, which Winnie discovers, somewhat it must be said to her disappointment, when she encounters Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who has been raised by the Boxtrolls since he was a child, most particularly by the father-like Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) and the moody but loving Shoes (Steve Blum).
Unaware he is a human, and the one whose “abduction” is most likely responsible for the Boxtrolls poor PR standing, he enlists Winnie in the seemingly hopeless task of stopping Arnibald Snatcher and his three cronies, two of whom are a real delight, engaging in hilarious musings on the nature of good and evil and which side of the fence they fall on.
In that respect, The Boxtrolls is decidedly and winningly old-fashioned, happy to tell a good against evil tale where the good is most definitely good, the evil is frightfully evil, and everyone else really should stop believing in prejudice, rumour and innuendo and come to their senses, which naturally enough they belatedly do.
What truly sets The Boxtrolls apart from many of their modern animation brethren is their aforementioned willingness to go as dark as needed in the telling of its tale, which means that while there is most definitely a heartwarming moral to the story – “It’s not cheese, white hats or boxes that make you; YOU make you” – it’s delightfully and playfully dark in the way it chooses to tell it.
The world that Laika creates in the telling of its gleefully twisted is fully-realised in the most wonderful ways with every character, most especially the titular loveable Boxtrolls who delight at every turn as a close knit community of mechanical savants with a heart of gold, comes alive in the most lifelike of ways.
You are emotionally invested from the get-go in Eggs’ unusual but thoroughly-devoted family and their fate, leaving you perched on the edge of your seats through the narrative’s twists and turns, laughing at every line of crackling dialogue, every scene of slapstick silliness (many of which are tinged with serious intent and social commentary) and glorying in the exquisitely-detailed animation.
Even the end credits are worth staying for, redolent with the same witty philosophical musings and wicked humour that punctuate much of the rest of the movie.
It may be dark where needed sure, but The Boxtrolls is also a celebration of inclusiveness, unquestioning love, togetherness and community, all of is told with warmth, whimsy, humour and an acknowledgement that, no matter who you are and where you live, whether you wear a box, eat cheese or wear a white hat, that family matters and that life in both its dark and light permutations, would not be the same without it.