The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Boxtrolls

It seems that each of the big animation houses is carving out its own specific niche. Pixar has heartwarming stories and classic character structure, DreamWorks Animation often utilizes hip pop-culture humor, and so on. Laika specializes in dark, weird little movies like Coraline and ParaNorman. That takes a certain amount of courage, because dark and weird will never be as big at the box office as sweet and lovable. And yet, Laika's latest, The Boxtrolls, manages to keep all the kooky edges while still finding a warm center.

The story takes place in an English village where creatures known as Boxtrolls are believed to be kidnappers of babies and menaces to society. In truth, they are harmless, misunderstood creatures. They wear cardboard boxes that they have found, and are named after whatever is on the box (Fish, Shoe, Clocks, etc.). Living among them is an orphaned human boy, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright), they have raised since infancy. Eggs mistakenly believes he is one of them. Meanwhile, above ground, the nefarious exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) is hatching a sinister plan. He wants admission into the village's white-hat society, a place for the wealthy and respected. In order to get his way, he convinces Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) to admit him if he can rid the town of Boxtrolls once and for all. Eggs gets wise to the plan and rallies the Boxtrolls to protect themselves. They get help from Lord Portley-Rind's daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning). Snatcher really wants his white hat, though, and he begins grabbing Boxtrolls left and right.

Based on Alan Snow's book Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls is, first and foremost, a magnificent work of design. Visually, the movie looks like a vision of Victorian England filtered through the consciousness of Tim Burton and then given a steampunk overhaul. Every character and set is meticulously designed, so that wherever you look on screen, you'll find something absolutely eye-popping. Equally impressive is that Laika has figured out how to shoot action scenes using the stop-motion animation technique. The camera moves along with the characters as they climb structures, drop down into sewers, and get sucked up by Snatcher's gigantic vacuum machine. Once upon a time, stop-motion animation had moving characters and static backgrounds. Now everything is alive, and scenes sometimes have dozens of characters milling around in the distance. Because the process involves actual physical objects being moved a frame at a time, 3D heightens the effect in The Boxtrolls. You really get a sense that things are next to other things.

For all its off-kilter visuals and dark humor (Snatcher's cheese allergy is the basis for several delightfully gross gags), The Boxtrolls also has a warmth that is unexpected. The titular creatures are somehow both gnarly and cute at the same time. They look weird from the outside, yet are invested with gentle, charming personalities that make them irresistible. They're also extremely funny. Much like the Minions of Despicable Me or the penguins in Madagascar, they unleash their own brand of comic mischief that leaves you cracking up. Many of the great screen creatures, from Frankenstein on, are misunderstood, with people fearing them for their looks rather than loving them for their big hearts. The Boxtrolls does its own variation on this idea, revealing its own heart in the process. It's a message kids can never hear enough: there is nothing wrong with being different, so long as you're also being kind and compassionate.

Younger children may not get the socioeconomic themes involved in the Snatcher/Portley-Rind scenes, but adults will appreciate the extra layer of story. There's still plenty of excitement and comedy to please kids, though. The Boxtrolls is the movie equivalent of its own characters: quirky, weird-looking, beautifully unusual, and almost impossible to not love.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Boxtrolls is rated PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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