2014, PG, 97 min. Directed by Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi. Voices by Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan, Richard Ayoade, Simon Pegg.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 26, 2014
The third time out is decidedly not the charm for the Portland, Oregon-based animation studio Laika. Unlike its two previous releases – the fantastically creepy stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and the tonally lighter but no less engrossing ParaNorman – The Boxtrolls feels rough-and-tumble and not as much fun by half. It doesn’t help matters that the audience is dropped into the proceedings with no explanation of the fanciful world they’re about to encounter, nor any sort of character background. The stop-motion animation is calculated to resemble and recall a long-ago fairy tale, and it does that well, but the convoluted yet simplistic story of an orphan boy raised by box-wearing, underground-dwelling trolls falls flat almost from the beginning. All things considered, an animated version of C.H.U.D. would have been more fun to sit through.
In the town of Cheesebridge, for reasons unknown, everyone’s gaga for the Gouda and mad for the muenster, and a boy named Eggs (Hempstead-Wright) is believed to have been kidnapped and eaten by the fearsome trolls that reside below the paving stones. Up above, Lord Portley-Rind (Harris) has hired the Fagin-esque Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley, giving it his oily all) to exterminate every last boxtroll, after which the lugubrious villain shall be gifted with a coveted white hat. (Don’t ask.)
Meanwhile, in undertown, the shy, harmless boxtrolls are revealed to be master engineers, collecting scraps of everything off the midnight streets of Cheesebridge and assembling their own ingenious devices à la Rube Goldberg. There’s a puppy-love romance between Eggs and Winnie (Fanning), the daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, but yeah, fine, whatever. With characters seemingly created by the Acme Animation assembly line and devoid of an essential amount of backstory, it’s hard to care whatever transpires.
Drawn from Brit Alan Snow’s YA novel Here Be Monsters! (a monster itself at 544 pages), screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s condensed version of the book doesn’t lack for awful puns and characters you barely care about. What’s missing is that ineffable animation magic so easily found and cherished in Laika’s prior feature work. The voices of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are present (Frost is particularly good as evil henchman Mr. Trout), but I’d hardly recommend The Boxtrolls to fans of their work in Edgar Wright’s whip-smart comedies; this is the kind of lackluster film project the characters from Spaced would almost certainly mock. Similarly, fans of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The Mighty Boosh will note the nasal tones of Richard Ayoade and wonder why he’s not off doing something better with his time and talent.