When Coraline was released in 2009 to critical acclaim, much was said about director/writer/producer Henry Selick and his auteur vision; not so much about Laika, the Oregon-based animation house that made that vision possible. When Selick left the company shortly after Coraline‘s release it seemed Laika would end up like its canine namesake, propelled into orbit only to be abandoned there. But that didn’t happen. While Selick’s vision was admirable, The Boxtrolls (and 2012’s solid ParaNorman) should put to rest any doubts as to whether the company can manage without him. Laika can survive that vacuum just fine. In fact, she can thrive in it.
In silk-smooth stop motion, The Boxtrolls tells the story of an orphan raised under the Victorian-esque town of Cheesebridge by a colony of subterranean tinkerers. They’re harmless creatures, but due to the machinations of villainous Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley, whose performance brings the ham to Cheesebridge) the Boxtrolls are feared by the townsfolk and are forever on the run from Snatcher’s goons.
Visually this is Laika’s most accomplished work. Building on the techniques used in ParaNorman, Boxtrolls is possibly the slickest looking stop-motion feature ever made – though the use of digital effects, most noticeably for fire and smoke, may be off-putting to purists. As before, Laika uses 3D printing to create faceplates for its puppets in every required expression – 53,000 faces for the whole film – a technique that gives their characters all the expressiveness of a digital model but with a sense of presence that CGI can never mimic.
There’s a sadness here that’s absent from most kids’ films. The threat to the Boxtrolls is real: an early montage shows their numbers dwindle from dozens to only a handful of survivors a few years later. It never quite rises to Coraline levels, but it’s there. Despite some clichéd characters and formulaic plotting, there’s an extra layer of thoughtfulness that elevates the movie above standard children’s fare in script as well as look, and makes The Boxtrolls the third consecutive success from one of the few pioneers of traditional animation in our computer-generated age.