BoxTrolls (2014)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 10/25/14
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg

Wow. "BoxTrolls" is a dark and visually stunning fantasy film that's a film geek's delight. Based on the book "Here Be Monsters," the story is about a young boy who is raised by a group of harmless, but inquisitive creatures called "box trolls." They live in the caves and sewers underneath a bustling city and come out at night to scavenge for knick-knacks and mechanical doo-dads. The box trolls are extremely gifted mechanics, and they make wonderfully whimsical machines. Unfortunately, the surface dwellers consider them to be pests and a particularly nasty man known as Archibald Snatcher (gleefully wicked Ben Kingsley) is spreading rumors that they kidnap children and eat them. His ultimate goal is to gain fame and prestige when he successfully eradicates "the box troll menace," which puts the innocent and helpless creatures in mortal danger. With the help of a precocious surface girl named Winnie (delightful Elle Fanning), the boy uncovers Snatcher's plot and makes a desperate attempt to expose him and save the box trolls.

This is very much the kind of story that you would expect from Aardman Studios, and the tone and material are very British. However, it's Laika Studios ("Coraline", "ParaNorman") that takes the credit, and their combination of stop-motion animation and CGI is simply breathtaking. The material is comically dark and twisted, refreshingly mean and nasty, and very reminiscent of Roald Dahl's work. The real monsters in the film are the humans, who are rendered as foul, ugly creatures with bad skin and hideous teeth. The body language is astounding, and the animators have done a superb job of getting their characters to emote. Ben Kingsley delivers an outstanding performance as the sinister Snatcher, and Elle Fanning brings Winnie to life with a headstrong attitude and girlish enthusiasm. Fantastic work all around. Apart from the sappy happy ending, the tone of the film is dark and serious, and the plight of the box trolls is dire. The exterminators are a mean and scary bunch, and the imagery is frightening.

At its core, it's a class struggle story that focuses on the greed and ambitions of men, and the evil that they do to transcend their lot in life. At the same time, it points out the absurdity of those in power, and the blindness of those seeking it. Snatcher is willing to devote his whole life to deceiving an entire city and destroying a group of harmless creatures just so that he can obtain a prestigious white hat and eat cheese (which he's ironically allergic to) with the upper crust. But, as we all know, the upper class has no intentions of letting anyone else join their ranks, regardless of what promises they've made. It's plain and simple: if you weren't born with a white hat, then you will never have one. Society's distinguished citizens are even more foul and morally corrupt than the people who desperately long to be one of them. Is Snatcher really such a terrible person, or is society to blame for driving him to such extremes? It's a bit thematically heavy-handed at times, but that doesn't spoil the fun and sense of wonder that the world has to offer.