Watching the stop-motion animated film THE BOXTROLLS at home over the weekend, I went through three distinct phases of reaction:
1. Wow, this is different.
2. Wow, this is dark.
3. Wow, this is fucking amazing.
I kept the f-bomb in my internal monologue—I was watching with the kids—but the rest I literally said out loud at various points. In a very strong year for smart and funny family films, The Boxtrolls was 2014’s best animated feature. It’s got my vote, anyway, and is one of five Oscar nominees in the category this year.
The story: In the surreal Victorian-era town of Cheesebridge, subterranean tinkerers known as boxtrolls emerge to scavenge the streets at night, building ornate contraptions in their caves beneath the city. The boxtrolls are peaceful, but have been vilified by a sort of allegorical corporatocracy of effete lords and corrupt industrialists.
Our hero is a teenage boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), raised by the boxtrolls and unaware of his human heritage. Through an inventive and tightly constructed story, Eggs endeavors to bring peace between the humans and the critters. Also on board in voiceover roles: Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan (!) and Simon Pegg.
Painstakingly assembled by the stop-motion animation studio Laika—the same team behind Coraline and ParaNorman—The Boxtrolls is never less than rich and fascinating, visually. (If you’ve seen those films, you know the style.) But this time, it’s the story that really sells the enterprise as a whole. Based on the novel Here Be Monsters!, the film is delightfully dark and sophisticated in tone, with a subversive edge that recalls the wily social satire of vintage Monty Python.
At the same time, the movie is broad and kinetic enough to engage kids on a whole ‘nother level. The characterizations veer toward the sort of old-timey grotesques (think Punch and Judy) that have been effective at entertaining children for centuries. I can report that my first-grade daughter, typically devoted to rainbows and ponies, absolutely loved The Boxtrolls.
The film just rotated onto DVD and Blu-ray, but it’s actually been available via digital distribution for a few weeks. You can get to it on iTunes or Amazon, on-demand through cable/satellite (AT&T U-verse has it locally in the Triangle area), or via the various set-top box and game console networks.
This is another example of the abiding weirdness that is digital distribution right now. All these great movies are out there, in the same price range as in the old video store days, available at the touch of a button. But because there’s no one-stop shopping solution for digital purchases, people get confused and wait for Redbox.
Anyway, with kids or without, The Boxtrolls is worth tracking down. Some other notable releases this week, now available on digital and disc:
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike headline the twisty thriller GONE GIRL.
Scarlett Johansson plays a sci-fi super-soldier in director Luc Besson’s LUCY.
One seriously creepy porcelain doll makes trouble in the retro-horror ANNABELLE.
And some picks for new January releases on Netflix:
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Marathon Man (1976)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
Oh, and a little international incident called THE INTERVIEW will start streaming on Netflix this Saturday: