One of the more memorable recurring gags in Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s The Boxtrolls involves Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), a submissive henchman to the nefarious Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), contemplating whether he’s a hero or a villain. As he assists Snatcher on his campaign to capture and kill all of the titular sewer-dwelling species, who harmlessly collect mechanical items at night, Trout becomes more aware that the drummed-up hatred for the nocturnal creatures is more his boss’s way to advance in society through fear of the other; he’s also pinned a child’s kidnapping on the gibberish-speaking trolls. This is similar terrain to ParaNorman, in which the staples of the horror genre were upended to expound on the virtues of fully understanding and empathizing with perceived enemies, but The Boxtrolls is ultimately only passingly interested in such inquiry.
As the film progresses, it goes to great lengths to remind the audience how gleefully innocent the boxtrolls are and how unfathomably corrupt and evil Snatcher is. Whereas Snatcher, accompanied by Trout, Mr. Pickle (Richard Ayoade), and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), is capable of essentially orphaning young Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), the boxtrolls take the young boy as one of their own, teaching him how to forage for tossed-away mechanisms, to fix them, or create new inventions with them. A seemingly unwanted byproduct of this attention to Snatcher and his heartless plan to rise up to the level of aristocrat is that the villain becomes the only fascinating character in the whole film, Eggs and the boxtrolls being nothing more than plain visions of absolute goodness.
Indeed, Snatcher’s obsession with class, represented by the white hat worn by Jared Harris’s Lord Portley-Rind, the town’s buffoonish de-facto leader, is seen as a moral and physical rot on the top-hatted exterminator. The script, adapted by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava from Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters, also places cheese as a sign of wealth and distinction, and Portley-Rind’s own obsession with Brie and Roquefort puts him at a distance with Winnie (Elle Fanning), his curious daughter. Snatcher, of course, is therefore obsessed with cheese as well, but has a severe allergy to dairy, one that causes him to grotesquely swell up all over his face, essentially showing how money brings out the ugliest and monstrous part of man.
To a degree, it makes sense that a movie marketed primarily to children would have most adults as either insufferable dimwits or savage villains, but the kids aren’t even a quarter as interesting in the script. Still, these movies are largely carried by the design and look of the animation, which is generally admirable and charming here. One can’t shake the feeling, however, that we’ve seen all this before. The vaguely European setting, the steam-punk ethos, and the 1930s costuming come off as not-exactly-cheap knock-offs of classics like The Triplets of Belleville, Corpse Bride, Coraline, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. And like most knock-offs, The Boxtrolls serves its purpose more or less, even as the filmmakers’ flippancy toward the story’s thematic concerns and character construction suggests that the film, like the boxtrolls’ myriad gadgets and inventions, was largely built from used parts.