The Boxtrolls (2014)

The Boxtrolls first published by Film4

Synopsis: In this stop-motion steampunk fairytale from the production company behind Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012), a young foundling and his adoptive monsters resist scapegoating and persecution.

Review: In the hill-top/-middle/-bottom hamlet of Cheesebridge, the upwardly mobile Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) makes a deal with Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris): in return for exterminating every last Boxtroll – Womble-like underground creatures said to snatch and eat children – Snatcher will earn himself the status symbol of a White Hat and a place at the town elite’s cheese-tasting table. Meanwhile a boy, raised as a Boxtroll and dubbed Egg (Isaac Hempstead Wright), becomes an unlikely resistance leader and exposer of community fictions, with help from Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning).

Like the contraptions built by the characters of its title, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s The Boxtrolls is a multifaceted blend of recycled influences and ideas. Loosely adapted from Alan Snow’s 2005 novel Here Be Monsters!, it merges the towering townscape, giant robot and class divisions of Paul Grimault’s The King And The Mockingbird (1980) with the eccentric silliness of Monty Python (there is even a song written by Eric Idle) and the steampunk sensibility of Hayao Miyazaki – while also adopting a foundling’s eye view borrowed from Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) to expose and satirise the teetering structures of (Cheesebridge) society.

For all its fairytale trappings, the film also allegorises how easily the Nazis were able to persecute a scapegoated minority in pursuit of their own populism and prestige. A man of many different public guises (but essentially Hitler with a cheese allergy), Snatcher enslaves the meek Boxtrolls as the workforce for his power base, planning eventually to eliminate them altogether.

While one of Snatcher’s henchmen, Mr Gristle (Tracy Morgan), is simply a mindless thug, the well-meaning but intellectually-challenged Mr Trout and Mr Pickles (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) are constantly troubled by the possibility that they might not, after all, be the ‘good guys’, and become the film’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hilariously bewildered by everything that is happening around them (their concerns shift from the ethical to the existential in the film’s brilliantly self-referential coda).

Most young children are a bit like Trout and Pickles, overwhelmed by the world in which they find themselves. While The Boxtrolls is always daftly entertaining, it also encourages its viewers, like that perplexed duo, to keep thinking for themselves and questioning everything.

In a Nutshell: Elegantly stylised stop-motion animation and cheesy humour sweeten rich subtexts tackling class entrenchment, manipulative demagoguery and even the Holocaust.

© Anton Bitel