The Boxtrolls, Laika’s follow-up to the inspired ParaNorman, feels at times as if it’s mainlining the very best of 1980s Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam – but without the high of seeing such a vision fully realized.
After an abrupt, jarring teaser, in which our protagonist Eggs (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is seemingly abducted by the titular creatures, the movie settles into a mostly charming story about the boy being raised by the verbally limited but awfully likable Fish. The Boxtrolls must live underground because they’re hunted by Archibald Snatcher (an excellent Ben Kingsley), an evil exterminator consumed by both a desire to rid his city of the creatures and a need to earn a “White Hat” – the pinnacle of high society in a class system governed by well-groomed men (led by Jared Harris’ character) more concerned with fancy cheeses than the well-being of their own children.
One such child is Winnie, voiced by a somewhat-overbearing Elle Fanning, who ultimately starts a love-hate relationship with Eggs but ends up his champion in a storyline centered on uncovering the true motives behind the boy’s “abduction” in an effort to bring him topside to be with his own kind. Massive wheels of cheese and steampunk mech follow (the latter seemingly inspired by the monstrosity that wreaked havoc during the third act of the terrible Wild, Wild West.)
The fever dream-like quality to some of the set pieces is fine; the movie has ambition and creativity to spare. The main problem with The Boxtrolls lies in the execution of these wild ideas, specifically a failing to find a balance between them and a coherent, consistent emotional core.
Unlike Laika’s previous films, the world of The Boxtrolls lacks an entry-point character or circumstance that audiences can instantly relate to, or invest in for the long haul. The script -- written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pavais, and based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters! -- is a patchwork of ideas in search of a cohesive, rewarding whole. The plot gives more time to weird, fantastic indulgences and side-story tangents than to the main thrust about a boy trying to find his place in a world not governed by Boxtrolls – despite the fact that the film never once acknowledges that being among humans again is something Eggs remotely wants.
The movie also taps into themes ParaNorman richly explored, especially how fear can get in the way of self-acceptance, but without the emotional impact of that previous work.
As problematic as the story is, The Boxtrolls’ production values are nothing short of perfect. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi are endlessly inventive with their elaborate camera work, especially an all-in-one-take reveal of the Boxtrolls’ subterranean lair. The camera sweeps past an elaborate wheel that spills water into a reservoir as the creatures move about – all the more impressive given its stop-motion trappings. And when the humor -- largely aimed at the target audiences’ parents – hits, it does so with a belly laugh.
It’s those mini-successes that hurt the most, as they hint to a movie with the potential to be the stop-motion equivalent of a Pixar film. Unfortunately, the ambition of The Boxtrolls’ reach exceeds its grasp.
The Boxtrolls opens Friday nationwide.