Having been put on the map by Coraline and Paranorman, stop-motion studio Laika returns with The Boxtrolls, a film which, while ostensibly possessing the same eye-catching visuals as the studio’s previous features, mostly feels warmed over, calling to mind not only both its predecessors, but also the tolerance-themed narratives of dozens of other animated films. There’s not much here we haven’t seen before, down to once-exciting character designs whose eccentricities have now become familiar (Eggs, the hero of this one, mostly just looks like Paranorman’s Norman with his hair mussed) . As a result, The Boxtrolls bores more often than it excites.
To the denizens of a sprawling Victorian metropolis, the titular Boxtrolls are the things that go bump in the night, foraging for whatever household items they can pilfer: doorknobs, gramophones, and the boxes they wear which give them their names. Foremost among the many terrifying Boxtrolls tales over the years is their kidnapping of a human boy 10 years ago — that boy being the aforementioned Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), now living happily with his Boxtroll pals underground, believing himself to be of their kind and oblivious to the constant ostracization his family faces above ground. Eventually, though, through meeting Winnie (Elle Fanning), a human girl from the ruling class, and Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), the film’s villain — who, as one would guess from his name, snatches Boxtrolls — Eggs learns who he really is and must confront anti-Boxtroll sentiment throughout the city.
The Boxtrolls simply lacks the unique edge of Laika’s previous films.
The Boxtrolls presents yet another tale of acceptance and tolerance, but focused on a character who is already readily accepted and tolerated. Eggs is your standard kids’-film protagonist, the lanky white boy who must convince the town he’s worth listening to (see: Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, Norman in Paranorman, or Chicken Little, the originator of this trope). As one would expect, his main objective is to make the townspeople understand that the Boxtrolls aren’t a threat; he therefore becomes the representative of a marginalized society whose members, while clearly intelligent, are apparently incapable of fighting for their own rights. In essence, The Boxtrolls offers a coded white-man’s-burden narrative, with trolls standing in for whatever minority race you care to plug in. Not one Boxtroll seems to evince any sense of agency; instead, as the narrative goes on, they simply become Eggs’ own personal army.
Even if you can put such potentially offensive racial dynamics aside, however, The Boxtrolls simply lacks the unique edge of Laika’s previous films. Coraline and Paranorman distinguished themselves among children’s films by delving deep into horror, combining abjection with humor to create surreally effective images. No such edge exists in The Boxtrolls; as a result, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s film, by comparison, comes off as typical kids’ fare, centered around a boilerplate narrative and dependent on generic action sequences and drama. Even the sequences that do work well enough — such as a tense scene in which a disguised Snatcher chases Eggs through a crowded ballroom — lack anything to write home about in its images and construction. Frankly, beyond the now-worn-out novelty of its stop-motion animation style — to contrast with its bevy of computer-animated peers — The Boxtrolls has nothing else to distinguish it from the current crop of computer-animated peers.