AN ORPHANED BOY RAISED UNDERGROUND VENTURES INTO THE WORLD ABOVE
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG, Grade: B+
Intriguingly though, there are more than a few dastardly things afoot in “The Boxtrolls.” You’ve got one Archibald Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley offering further proof that Brits certainly have cornered the market on voicing villainy), a devious commoner with plans to scare his way into the inner circle of Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the aristocratic leader of a village obsessed with their cheese, but living in fear of the trolls, mistakenly believed to be interested in either pilfering cheese or stealing babies for nefarious (and bloodthirsty) aims. Snatcher convinces Portley-Rind to let him go about the business of capturing the Boxtrolls once and for all, and when the job is complete, Snatcher will be elevated into the ruling class of cheese-eaters.
Of course, the Boxtrolls want nothing to do with cheese or the children of the village, other than Eggs who grows into his place among the trolls. The underground crew only comes out at night and scavenges the trash and discarded items of the families above; in search of trinkets they can take back to their underworld carnival of lights and ingenious devices they have created from junk. The village has a staid formal feel, whereas the Boxtrolls’s lair teems with energy and life; it is the perfect place for a kid with imagination and no intention of growing up.
But grow up he must, especially when Eggs encounters Winnie (Elle Fanning), the initially caustic daughter of Portley-Rind who has been brainwashed into believing all of the horrible lies about the Boxtrolls. Winnie even assumes Eggs is part of this tribe until she spends time with them and discovers the truth. It is fascinating to pay attention to the subtle shift in Fanning’s voice work, which also documents the transition from the narrative focus on Eggs and the trolls to Winnie and her relationship with her father. They serve as a counterpoint to the dynamic between Eggs and Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), his Boxtroll surrogate father.
Yet, it is Winnie who wins our attention and affections, thanks to Fanning’s outsized vocal performance, completely unlike anything we might expect from her in a live action role. Fanning is free here to push the needle, turning the energy and tone up several notches, almost as if she were onstage in a live theater, playing to the cheap seats.
Although, by the final act, with its series of escalating adventures and crazy set pieces, the attention lands back on the Boxtrolls and Eggs, who each find themselves in this outlandish new world. “The Boxtrolls” borrows liberally from fairy tales and modern myths, but pulls off the trickier job of appealing to both kids and adults without resorting to cheap pop culture references. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, working from a script by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava (based on Alan Snow’s novel “Here Be Monsters!”) make us believe monsters can be far more human than mere human beings.