Stop-motion specialists, Laika are quickly crafting a nice little niche for themselves, not just as heirs to Aardman’s hand-crafted animation crown, but also as peddlers of curiously ghoulish kiddie-horror. Their output to date has been humorous and enchanting, yet wonderfully grotesque, and they follow their excellent previous offerings, Coraline and ParaNorman with The Boxtrolls, an adaptation of the Alan Snow novel, Here Be Monsters!
The titular critters are a race of subterranean tinkers, living below the town of Cheesebridge who emerge from the confines of their lair each night to pilfer anything and everything not nailed down. The residents of this oddly-named, proto-steampunk metropolis are in a panic as the Boxtrolls have developed a sinister reputation for kidnapping. A reputation which is hardly helped when they find themselves in possession of an orphan child whom they spirit away to raise as one of their own. Flash-forward and now grown into a young lad and a fully-fledged member of the Boxtrolls tribe, Eggs (Isaac Hemptead-Wright), journeys above ground to dispel the rumours before the malevolent pest control expert, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) can wipe them all out.
Anything which amounts to a piece of child-friendly horror is alright in my eyes. As far as I’m concerned your little toerags are never too young to be exposed to ninety minutes of visceral horror or psychological trauma. Luckily for myself, and for those youngsters who like some revulsion with their trip to the cinema, The Boxtrolls is one of the most downright bonkers and bizarre things I have seen in a while. The world of Cheesebridge is a macabre delight with a steampunk-cum-medieval aesthetic which looks as lovely and as thrilling anything in children’s cinema. Kingsley’s immoral villain is bursting with repulsiveness and voracity like a fat pimple, ready to burst; not to mention he looks like Timothy Spall’s rotten corpse. The film has an unhealthy, queasy fascination with cheese too, which induces hideous transformations of character both mental and physical. Parts of this look like early David Cronenberg, such is the level of body horror on show. So far, so good.
The Boxtrolls themselves are amiable enough, if a little underused, and come with the endearing trait of naming themselves after the cardboard boxes they wear – hence, Eggs is named after eggs and Fish is named… you get it.
There are moments of joy too, in particular a fish (actually Eggs) out of water sequence at a ball hosted by devious transvestite, and Elle Fanning’s tomboyish heroine provides enough gusto and guts.
On the downside, this one throws muddled messages at you with all the subtlety of a peacock in a Christmas hat. The notion that “family comes in all shapes and sizes” is rammed home in a post-denouement moment of evangelism. Meanwhile, Cheesbridge’s troubling class system ranks its members’ importance on the colour of their hats. There appears to be a tacit criticism of this particular arrangement and yet the only character actively fighting, or even aware of it, is Kingsley’s Snatcher.
Above all, it needs to be funnier. For all the squelchy, disgusting bliss, I could have done with more laugh-out-loud moments. As a prime example, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and Tracy Morgan star as existentially-worried henchmen who fret about the duality of good and evil, and yet their only really funny moment comes during a post-credits gag.
Laika’s rapidly growing reputation as playful horror specialists may not be in doubt; they just might want to take a little more care next time, to make sure they continue to dole out that playfulness and horror in equal measure.
12th September 2014 (UK)
Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Isaac Hempstead Wright