VENICE - If you liked "The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!," the "Wallace & Gromit" films, anything by Monty Python or just funny, witty movies in general, make sure you catch Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi's "The Boxtrolls." Based on the book "Here Be Monsters" by Alan Snow, I can't remember the last time I saw a family animation so visually rich, tightly scripted and charmingly performed which was also built on a sound and progressive message. It's unlikely to become a cultural juggernaut on the level of something like "Frozen," but I think it is as enjoyable.
The set up has the magical feel of a traditional fairytale blended with the weirder sensibility of a revisionist fable along the lines of "Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes." In a city where fancy cheeses are prized by the upper classes as the epitome of fine living, the middle classes live in fear of The Boxtrolls, a literal underclass (the trolls live in a cave underground), who they are erroneously informed want to steal and eat their children.
These harmless subterranean critters are in fact are up to nothing more menacing than scratching a living collecting garbage (shades of UK TV stop motion animation "The Wombles" here) -- they're rather sweet creatures, nothing like the sort of trolls you find lurking in "The Lord Of The Rings" or "Harry Potter" or indeed the internet. Living with them is Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a boy who has been raised by the trolls, and believes that he himself is a troll.
Eggs' idyll is threatened and identity thrown into crisis when the bourgeois villain of the piece, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), is promised promotion to the upper echelons of society in exchange for ridding the town of the boxtroll menace. He's a great OTT villain, bellowing lines like "Stop destroying my indestructible machine!" with gusto. That his masterplan is so limited by his narrow world view -- all he wants is to eat posh cheese and have refined banter in the tasting room with the other aristocrats -- makes his maniacal dedication all the scarier and oddly realistic. I thought of Frances McDormand's cop in "Fargo," shaking her head in disbelief that someone would go to such horrible lengths -- "and for what? For a little bit of money." Substitute money for cheese and you're there.
The three-tier world of "The Boxtrolls" is beautifully realized in state of the art stop motion animation from Laika, the studio behind "ParaNorman" and "Coraline." Set pieces such as an expensive wheel of brie (in which the elite have invested instead of building a children's hospital) inevitably rolling out of control fizz with visual invention. The character design is superb too -- characters confounding the traditional beauty norms of much animation are often heroes (the boxtrolls), while the beautifully turned out folk at a ball given by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) are revealed as timorous and vapid. But make no mistake: I'm not raving about "The Boxtrolls" because its politics are right on -- the main aim is clearly telling an entertaining story, and in that objective it succeeds with aplomb, for a variety of reasons, not least strong voice acting.
Much animation is now sold on its cast. Two disappointing trends in voice acting that have become more common over the last ten years as a result of this are 1. casting actors with incredibly nondescript voices just because they are big names and 2. casting actors who bear a certain fleeting physical resemblance to the character they're voicing. Neither of these trends are good for voice acting, which should be based purely on interesting voices matched to characters that will sound best with those particular voices coming out of them.
"The Boxtrolls" bucks this trend beautifully and lets its mostly British cast go to town in crafting the vocal element of their character (there's even a song by Eric Idle for some of them to get their vocal chords around). Richard Ayoade gives a hilarious performance voicing conciliatory henchman Mr. Pickles, who doesn't realize he's evil. Even after assisting in some pretty nefarious schemes, he's still "60 to 70% certain" he's a good guy. Employing a part-childlike, part overly-intellectualized delivery similar to that of his character Moss in UK TV's "The IT Crowd," he's a complete delight. Elle Fanning is likewise superb as Winnie Portley-Rind, a spoiled rich girl with a gruesome imagination but a good heart, who rather enjoys contemplating being terrorized by boxtrolls: "I'm not obsessed, I just can't stop imagining them gnawing off my toes and wearing the bones as a necklace." There's something reminiscent of Miranda Richardson's line delivery as Queen Elizabeth I in UK TV series Blackadder II, as she resigns herself to her fate after falling into the hands of the boxtrolls: "If you're going to eat me, just get it over with, I'm sure I'm delicious."
It's rare to like a film without any reservations, but for the life of me I don't think I have any about this marvelous film. It also rivals "23 Jump Street" for funniest post-credits (or technically mid-credits) sequence of the year, but I won't spoil that for you -- just make sure you see this film and stick around at the end.
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