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Boxtrolls, The (2014)

Stop-motion is one of the oldest forms of animation there is. For a long time though it had seemed to have fallen out of favour- and was rarely ever used in full-length features. It's been something of a surprise then to see the medium have something of a comeback recently- especially in today's CGI dominated animation scene. At the forefront of this stop-motion renaissance is LAIKA, who return in their eagerly awaited third feature- The Boxtrolls.

The people of the town of Cheesebridge have long lived in fear of the trolls who dwell beneath their feet. Legend has it that ten years ago the creatures kidnapped and ate a human baby, dragging him down to the sewers below. In reality though the Boxtrolls are no monsters, but lovable, intelligent beings who wouldn't hurt a fly (although they do eat other insects). The boy they "snatched" is, in fact, alive and well having been raised as a Boxtroll. However, when a dastardly exterminator starts kidnapping trolls, the boy (now known as Eggs) must venture to the world above to try and find out what happened to them.

LAIKA have pushed forward the art of stop-motion with every successive film- and Boxtrolls is no exception. It's easily their most technically accomplished film to date. The artistry on display here is nothing short of gob-smacking, with the model-making and production design here among the best you'll see in stop-motion anywhere in the world. Extensive and ground-breaking use of 3D printing tech means their models have a level of polish that could even be mistaken for CGI. This means that LAIKA probably have the slight technical edge over closest rivals Aardman, although they lack a bit of the UK firm's hand-made charm as a result.

It's interesting how stop-motion in the US has become closely associated with slightly darker, gothic-tinged material. This has become LAIKA's stock-and-trade and Boxtrolls carries on in this tradition. The Trolls themselves- who get their name from their habit of wearing discarded cardboard boxes for clothing- are a winning mix of cute and creepy. With their unpleasant habits and questionable personal hygiene they are a long way from the cute creatures found in more typical children's fare. The humans with their decadent ways and caricatured designs, are if anything even more grotesque. From start to finish the film is laced with gross-out elements that won't be to everybody's taste but will likely appeal to most children. This extends to the plot which has some darker elements, but they're all in the rich tradition of fairy-tale story-telling.

It's adapted from the book Here Be Monsters by British author Alan Snow, and the film-makers have managed to adapt without it feeling in any way Americanised. Despite being made in the United States, the film retains an unmistakably British feel. This is partly because it features an array of British actors in the voice cast, with Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost amongst them. But it also extends to the film's plot and sense of humour which feels very much in the rich tradition of UK-based comic writing, Monty Python in particular.

Speaking of the cast, they do a fantastic job across the board, with nobody letting the side down here at all. Standing out particularly is Kingsley as the villainous Archibald Snatcher with his performance proving to be one of the finest animation baddies in recent memory. Ayoade and Frost provide able back-up as his underlings who's slow realisation that they may, in fact, be working for The Bad Guy is one of the film's highlights.

The film's story is ultimately pretty simple- a story of family and friendship and has a positive message about acceptance and tolerance, although it's not exactly subtle ("Ah, but who are the REAL monsters?") The characterisation is pretty cartoonish and not exactly complex either. But it's not the story that The Boxtrolls will be remembered for, but rather it's stunning animation and stellar design. From the opening frames to the gorgeously animated 2D closing credits, this film is nothing less than a work of art.