Laika is on a roll. In the past couple of years the stop-motion animation studio behind Coraline (2009) and Paranorman (2012) has created original, technically innovative, and emotionally satisfying movies with a consistency reminiscent of Pixar's heyday.
Laika's latest movie, The Boxtrolls, continues their tradition of mixing horror with family films by using a combination of beautiful stop-motion and CGI. Based on Alan Snow's children's book, Here Be Monsters, The Boxtrolls follows a young orphaned boy raised by a group of underground, trash collecting creatures. When an exterminator tries to rid the town of boxtrolls to climb the social ladder, the boy must try to save his family and discover out his own identity.
The film is a moving, funny indictment of conformity. Although there are many clever visual jokes, there are also plenty of jokes aimed at the younger audience. While children will enjoy the humor, adults will appreciate the social commentary and the incredible craftsmanship that went into the character and set design. It is truly visually stunning, and is one of the few movies that benefits from the addition of 3D.
The titular creatures are funny and speak a cute gibberish language. The animators successfully convey their sentiments through tone, facial expressions, and body language. Unfortunately, the audience never quite forms the same emotional connection with the boxtrolls as we do with the human characters. The human characters just seem to have much more depth and personality.
The voice acting is outstanding. The film compiles an amazing cast, from Elle Fanning, to Nick Frost, to Tracy Morgan, to Jared Harris.
The obvious standout, however, is an incredible performance by a cockney-accented Sir Ben Kingsley, playing the villainous exterminator Archibald Snatcher. His character's desperation to move up in society is nuanced and consistently entertaining. That mixed with his many physical transformations makes every minute he is on screen a joy to watch.
Some of the best humor in the film comes from meta and self-aware jokes told by Snatcher's group of thugs. This film, more than any previous Laika movie, offers interesting glimpses into the behind the scenes process of making a stop-motion film.
Laika has a remarkable record of progressiveness when it comes to social issues. Paranorman has a teenaged jock who came out as gay at the end of the movie, and the teaser trailer for The Boxtrolls offers a heartwarming message that families come in all shapes and sizes. In the film itself, there are a few jokes about a man cross dressing as a woman that seemed a little outdated. However, the jokes were not at the expense of the cross dresser, rather the film portrayed the cross dressing as advantageous to the character.
Overall, the film is visually stunning, offering plenty of cute creatures and jokes for children, as well as social commentary from nuanced characters for the adults. A couple minor plot twists might be obvious before the surprise is revealed and explained in full, but the journey is still fun and moving. It all comes together to make one the best animated film of the year so far.
The Boxtrolls comes out September 26, 2014