Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: "The Boxtrolls"

I thought last year a slow one for quality animated films, but if anything 2014 has been even duller. “Frozen” finally came along at year’s end to brighten things up, and this time September has delivered its own wondrous surprise: “The Boxtrolls.”

This stop-motion gem is one of the best of its ilk since “Coraline.” It’s a whiz-bang collection of fun action, Dickensian backdrop, cute critters and one really nasty, yet pleasing, villain.

Based on a novel by Alan Snow, the story centers on the titular trolls, who live underground and wear old cardboard boxes instead of clothes. Though they tend to pilfer things left unattended, they’re more tinkerers who love to build junk than malicious marauders. They go by the names of whatever’s on their box: Fish, Shoe, etc.

I just love the trolls’ look, with pasty skin, pointy ears, tufts of random hair and big liquid eyes surrounded by dark patches like a domino mask, which makes them look like vintage cartoon burglars. They don’t really speak, using a collection of croaks, clicks and squeaks to communicate.

The boxtrolls have gotten a bad rap from the humans after they allegedly pilfered a baby years ago. Archibald Snatcher, a lowlife climber who yearns to wear one of the “White Hats” signifying town leaders, appoints himself chief boxtroll catcher, and sets about exterminating the population.

Snatcher is voiced heroically by Ben Kingsley, in one of the best vocal performances in recent memory. Snatcher chews and growls his words as if they are poison to his mouth – not unlike the fine cheeses favored by the White Hats, which he craves to share despite the fact they make him swell up like a landed jellyfish. And he’s got a buxom alter ego.

He has a trio of henchmen who range in malevolence from reluctant to gleeful – Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan do the voices. The nicer pair proclaim themselves the good guys, but worry they’re really evil stooges.

Isaac Hepstead-Wright provides the voice of Eggs, a human boy who was the baby kidnapped by the boxtrolls, though there’s more to it than that. He’s grown up with them and is convinced he is a boxtroll, despite evidence to the contrary. (He insists his ability to use English is a “speech impediment.”)

Eggs finds himself stranded on the city streets topside, where he encounters Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), daughter of the local lord (Jared Harris). Willful and obstinate, Winnie is infuriated by her parents’ continual ignoring of what she has to say, particularly with regard to the truth about the boxtrolls.

Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi are animation veterans without a lot of experience in the top seat, but prove to be top-notch visualists and storytellers. Irena Brignull and Adam Pava wrote the screenplay.

My guess is the stop-motion work has been augmented with some computer-generated effects, since there some things – like smoke dissipating from Snatcher’s various steamworks contraptions – that couldn’t be achieved otherwise.

I’m no purist myself – whatever works onscreen, works. This is a movie of dense layers, from the grimy cobblestone streets and buildings to extreme close-ups of the characters, which are incredibly detailed and facially expressive. (And those wonky teeth – so British!)

“The Boxtrolls” is the sort of delightfully inventive family picture that parents might be tempted to indulge in a second viewing – on their own, with the kiddies tucked in at home.

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