The Boxtrolls is quite pleasantly old fashioned in a couple of ways. Most notably, it is a stop-motion animated film, the production eschewing the digital advantages of computer animation in favor of the analog charm of meticulously moving models frame by frame. But it is old fashioned in how it embraces darker material, how it trusts children to handle a slightly macabre edge, and themes that go beyond the tired platitudes of children’s cinema. The Boxtrolls is a delightful picture, precisely because it chooses to be more than delightful.
Underneath the town of Cheesebridge live the Boxtrolls, a community of harmless, mechanically inclined monsters that emerge on the streets at night to scavenge through the town's garbage for parts to make the marvelous machines in their subterranean lair. But the exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) has convinced the entire town that the Boxtrolls are dangerous, mainly because of an event that had the Boxtrolls taking an orphan child underground. This child, who they call Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), grows up with the Boxtrolls underground, but he must venture into the daylight to save his family from Snatcher's nefarious plans and uncover the secret of his past.
Computer animation, though often beautiful and expertly crafted, can feel a bit sterile. Everything is made to be shiny, and the art design tends to avoid anything that could be deemed ugly. This is not the case with this movie, which embraces the grotesque. Its primary heroes are trolls, after all. The movie isn’t afraid to put together a gross visual, like a man becoming horrifically bloated due to an allergic reaction, or that same man being treated with leeches. It’s a bit of a reminder that children’s cinema wasn’t always so clean and bright. There was a time when children’s cinema could be scary and strange, and more willing to get properly dark.
With its visuals, the film trusts that kids aren’t fragile, and that approach carries over to the film’s themes. The narrative is fairly conventional, and the lessons learned in the end are pretty standard. But the film gets from point to point with plenty of interesting flavor. This mostly standard adventure story is enhanced by a sharp sense of social satire, and an intriguing streak of melancholy that acknowledges that families can be painfully imperfect.
But even if one doesn’t pick up on any of this, the movie is still just a really fun time. The animation is just gorgeous. The movie puts together plenty of fun, strange action sequences, and the stop-motion work brings it all to life beautifully. The incredible art designs pretty much ensures that every frame is filled with fascinating details of this world. The voice cast delivers a slew of distinct, memorable characters. Ben Kingsley is perfectly menacing as the dastardly Snatcher. Comedy vets Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan and Simon Pegg bring a lot to the film’s buffoonery. And Isaac Hempstead Wright and Elle Fanning really strong as the film’s kid heroes.
It’s worth sticking around through the end credits of The Boxtrolls. There’s a delightful little scene in the end that shows off the kind of work that went into animating the movie, paired with a strange little existential coda. It’s a great little peek behind the curtain, and as delightful as everything else in this film. It feels a little strange to call this film delightful, because of how ugly it allows itself to be. But in an environment that might try a little too hard to protect children from any sort of darkness, this film emerges as a breath of fresh air.