As animated films become more slick and commercial-looking — as CGI takes over not only backgrounds and motion but also character construction and whole projects — stop-motion only gets more charming and valuable. Richly textured, with a distinctly organic feel and the unmistakable stamp of handmade craft, the “The Boxtrolls” is a feast for the detail-starved eye. It is gorgeously detailed and is constructed imaginatively. Its story, however, has the muddled feel of the work of a committee, and it veers off the mark of true greatness.
“The Boxtrolls” takes place in a split world, with the decadent and silly town of Cheesebridge above a thriving yet misunderstood civilization of boxtrolls below. These trolls wear cardboard boxes that serve as clothes, disguise and protection as they go marauding in the surface world to steal gears and garbage with which to build their own contraptions. They adopt a human boy they call Eggs, and he must confront the duality of his nature and help save the trolls from the uncomprehending tyranny of man.
There are many successes in the film. It’s charming, with funny dialogue and heartwarming interactions. Eggs, played by “Game of Thrones’” Isaac Hempstead-Wright, grows up adorably in the beginning, sprouting long boyish arms out of his egg box, and becomes a leader. His adopted father, Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), is wonderfully tender in a subhuman way that immediately humanizes the trolls, despite the human effort to villainize them. Villains Archibald Snatcher and Lord Portly-Rind (Ben Kingsley and Jared Harris) represent evils of commission and omission, respectively, with the whole of their culture focused on various cheeses and their love for them. The henchmen of Snatcher are played by Tracy Morgan and Richard Ayoade with sparkling wit and the overt examination of what makes a character good or evil. These two bring a meta-awareness to the film that’s very engaging for adults.
There are also quite a few failures. The film is jointly directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, giving the impression of too many cooks in the kitchen. Produced by Laika, the same company that made “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” is further proof of Laika’s strengths and failures. “Coraline” was a runaway success, because it combined the brilliance of Laika’s stop-motion artistry with great source material. “ParaNorman” performed less well due to its weaker plot, which suffered because too much attention was paid to the visual aspects.
“The Boxtrolls” is based on Alan Snow’s book “Here Be Monsters!” but the film resembles the book so little that it’s not even properly termed an adaptation. Threads are introduced early in the film that expose a crumbling infrastructure in Cheesebridge, and the industrious trolls are indeed the solution. That’s never truly stated, however. Elle Fanning is flat as Winnie Portly-Rind despite a heroic effort in the script to make her a gorehound. Her parents are failures in a grievous way that goes unremarked throughout, while Eggs’ reunion with his long-lost father is made more into a punchline than a satisfying closure.
The construction of the world is asymmetrical and expressive, recalling great works of stop-motion animation such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Characters are lovingly created, with startlingly realistic swelling effects and extremely subtle facial expressions. A few choices end up looking bizarre: eyelids move underneath and independently of faces, producing a mask-like effect when shot up-close. But the attention paid to the hair of every single character, including wigs and whiskers, is breathtaking. The result is uneven, as if no one artistic vision was allowed to survive unless all others got their say.
“The Boxtrolls” is cute but off-balance. Its technical brilliance is blatantly unmatched by the mediocre quality of its plot and script. Laika has the goods as a production house, but in the future, it should concentrate its efforts on sourcing strong material and allowing it to speak. Laika has carved out its niche and has started to make a name for itself — but here’s to hoping it’s carved out in something more lasting than clay.
“The Boxtrolls” is playing at UA Berkeley 7.